by Christopher R. Bales
The meeting room was small, crowded, and smelled like old books. Tall shelves crammed with dusty records and yellowed pamphlets surrounded the large wooden table. Old maps, posters, even a genuine turn-of-the-century embalming certificate decorated the confines. Curiously, the brick-walled room lacked windows. A few questions revealed that this place had once been a storage area for bodies awaiting burial: the perfect atmosphere for the task at hand.
This was the meeting place for hopeful participants in the “Old City Cemetery Moonlight Tour.” The event would consist of a number of graveside performances. In makeshift period costumes, with modest sound and lighting equipment, performers would reenact the lives, deaths, and mysterious occurrences of the more colorful residents buried at the historic Sacramento cemetery.
The tour coordinator sat behind his desk with a handful of notes. Stroking his silver mustache and gesturing with his long arms in true thespian fashion, he recounted graveyard tales in a distinctive baritone. The roles available for the moonlight performance were offered in a first-hand‑up‑it’s‑yours basis. As with most volunteer affairs, the turnout was small. I was only interested in one part — the chance of a lifetime — and was delighted to find the role of the Grim Reaper mine for the taking. How many opportunities does one have to play Death in a moonlit graveyard?
Armed with a small flashlight, the coordinator traversed the cemetery with long, confident strides. I followed as best I could, trying not to trip over my own feet or the gravestones of unsuspecting strangers. The flashlight’s dancing beam lit on particular tombstones as the coordinator explained my role as the Specter of Death, plot by plot. When the audience gathered in front of a grave, the narrator would take his place center stage. On his signal, I would enter from a nearby hiding place and pass an enigmatic hand across the audience. My pointed finger would end at the gravestone that was the subject of the performance at hand. After my exit, the actors would come out to start the scene. I would move to the next site and repeat the formality. The Reaper would appear only at six locations. With no lines to learn and nothing but dramatic entrances and exits, I felt confident I could survive the night.
With the spirit of Halloween in the air, I was eager for the night of the show.
October 26th, 1996, 5:00 p.m.
I had about an hour to prepare for the performance. The slow transformation into the Grim Reaper was strangely hypnotic. I slicked my hair tightly against my scalp. In progressive layers of gray and black face paint, I sculpted my features. My eyes became dead, black sockets. My jaw became sunken and gaunt. My brow and cheekbones pushed forward as the skull crept out from beneath my skin. Calm power entered me. I became something else. With effort, I pulled a thick black robe over my head. I adjusted the cowl and let the long sleeves slide to my wrists. Turning out the light, I opened the door a crack. The chiaroscuro effect of the light filtering into the room made my death mask seem to smolder in the soft shadows. I clutched my tall scythe and passed a hand across my reflection in the mirror.
The ride to the cemetery was surreal, a testimonial the desensitization of today’s society. No one noticed the Reaper of Death riding down the highway in a compact pickup.
A crowd was already forming at the entrance to the graveyard. I parked in a small lot across the way, took a moment to get into character, then crossed the street. I advanced through the iron gate and entered the grounds. It took a while for the spectators notice Death moving in behind them. Soon double takes and whispers had the group slowly parting, with apologetic gestures of fear, respect, or mild amusement.
One of the volunteers handed me an antique lamp. Its flickering candlelight tied off the Reaper ensemble. I quickly took my position at the first site.
After what seemed like hours spent crouching behind a bush, I saw the audience encircle the plot. Flashlights from the costumed ushers corralled them. The narrator, appropriately dressed in an old-fashioned black tie and jacket, took his place behind the podium. I emerged slowly. Somehow I’d developed a lumbering, slow-motion walk, as if my bones had become ancient. I held my lamp before me, casting the light over the assemblage as if scouting future prospects. Bright light surprised me as the ushers trained their flashlights on my face. I stopped in front of the tombstone and passed a searching finger across the crowd, making brief eye contact with those who dared to meet my gaze. More lights, this time flash photography, hit me just as my finger stopped at the face of the headstone.
I turned away slowly, grabbed my sickle from the tree where it rested, and hobbled out of the scene as the actors made their entrance.
I stayed in character as I made my way to the next plot, since the audience could see me in the distance. This was the most inspirational moment of the evening for me: moving alone through the moonlit cemetery, the sound of the performers disappearing behind me. The cold wind rustled my black robe as I strolled through the weather-etched grave markers. Using the dim light of my lantern, I stopped now and then to read a faded inscription. I felt calm and reverent, as if visiting those I’d met before (although our first encounter might have been under less than desirable circumstances). Now they knew the peace only I had the power to give them. This was fun, although a little disturbing. I’m not sure I liked that the role of Death came so naturally to me.
The last stop on the tour was one of the most impressive plots in the Old City Cemetery. It was a large mausoleum, resting place of a mother and son. Through small panels of glass, the two caskets could be viewed.
As I moved behind the crypt to my hiding place, I was startled by a hooded figure. She was cloaked in black velvet. Her gloved hands cupped a perfect red rose. Head bowed, she whispered to herself as if in prayer — one of the performers meditating over her lines, I thought. She was playing the mother buried in the mausoleum. The son died first and, apparently, his mother was obsessed with visiting the gravesite. When she died, she was laid to rest in the same mausoleum.
I chose not to disturb the actress. I set my lantern at my feet, leaned against my scythe, and waited for the narrator’s signal.
I made my usual enigmatic entrance and exit, then moved down the short stairs of the mausoleum. It was the final performance and I felt a certain amount of relief. As I passed the outskirts of the spectators lining the walkway, I heard my only heckling of the evening. It was a rather rude sound, a feeble, unimaginative attempt to break my stone‑faced character. I stopped in my tracks and tightened my grip on the scythe. I wanted to slowly turn, searching out the insolent mortal with my cold dead eyes, to offer him a premature ride to the black abyss. Only a fool would belittle the personification of Death on His own hallowed ground.
But the performers had begun to recite their lines. So as not to interfere with the proceedings, I moved on, deciding to leave it as a moment of whimsy. Maybe next year’s performance will allow me to reap my revenge.
This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Learn more about the Old City Cemetery here.
Christopher R. Bales is an artist, author, and occasional Death impersonator. Please check out his work at www.christopherbales.com.
From his about page: “It seems cheap to pigeonhole assemblage artist Christopher Bales’s work as merely steampunk: His aesthetic is older than that. Although he sometimes uses antique and vintage materials associated with the genre, such as metal cogs, the final product often looks more like an altar constructed from the rubble of a pre-Victorian cathedral.
“Bales, who has been assembling these intricate sculptures since 1989, said he sources “an enormous amount of objects”—like broken wooden boxes, dolls, clocks, picture frames, figurines—from his weekly visits to flea markets and thrift stores.”
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.