Death and Art: In praise of wandering through Green-Wood Cemetery

Death and Art: In praise of wandering through Green-Wood Cemetery

The day after the election, I went for a long walk in Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s where I go when I’m feeling tense, sad, vulnerable — whenever I’m searching for some perspective about my smallness in the vast universe. I knew I would need to go there Nov. 4.

Green-Wood gives me comfort by reminding me of the anonymity of death and of my true priorities. Aside from birth and death dates, the most common engraving on these stones is about everlasting love. All my anxieties, my follies, the things I beat myself up about — they simply don’t matter. When I walk among the graves, I feel surrounded by a long lineage of love, and I see time not as a robber, but as grace.

I also sense the potential of revolution. I see history as the ceaseless tidal wave of human struggle and hope, slowly eroding the bedrock of oppression. When I imagine the lives of these people and their crumbling bones beneath my feet, I feel deeply connected to them and to the fate that unites us all. It’s an important reminder that I could join them at any time.

When I arrived at Green-Wood’s towering neo-Gothic gate, a friendly volunteer handed me a map showing a route to visit the graves of 19 notable suffragettes. After getting lost and stressed, I decided to give up the self-guided map tour and just wander. Green-Wood is one of the few places I let my feet carry me on a whim, and I think this spontaneity is part of why I treasure these walks so much.

My mind drifted along with my feet, taking me back to my college days when I learned about the Situationist International in a class about art and activism. Founded in the 1960s, the group gave walking a political stance; they realized when we move automatically within routines, we prescribe to capitalism (think going to work or going to the store). I find that we rarely move around the city inspired by our curious minds or the desire to connect with our hearts. This lack of walking for the sake of wandering leads to what writer Rebecca Solnit described as a denial of a “vast portion of [our] humanity.”

Capitalism makes demands on our bodies and seeps into every decision we make. The Situationists, as Marxists, aimed to resist the social alienation and lack of liberty they saw as unavoidable under capitalism. Their goal was to liberate everyday life. To achieve this liberation, they would cut up and reassemble maps, or hijack ads to critique capitalism, or just do a lot of aimless walking.

At first, I struggled to truly arrive at the present moment as I made my way through the cemetery. My panic about the election was spiraling, so I sat down to clear my head by journaling. But rather than release my tough emotions, I could feel them growing the more I wrote. Luckily, I was interrupted by a tiny bird, which Google informed me was a Golden-Crowned Kinglet. It flitted around the grass, poking for insects, and it came so close that I could see its little chest rise and fall with each breath. Its trust in me made me weepy. I put down my journal and started simply walking.

I love the interplay between nature and sculpture in the cemetery. I think it’s where the real art lies. The headstones mirror the landscape in ways that the original architects couldn’t have foreseen. Sometimes they’re the exact same color as the leaves behind them.

Erosion wears down the figures and makes them abstract.

Or a spiky seed pod alights on a gravestone like an offering.

Lichen borders a name in complete aesthetic balance.

Some of the stones are designed to look rough-hewn and “natural,” but they all have a similar shape and texture. It’s funny when humans try to recreate nature out of its own elements.

And the trees! They’re fiery, resplendent in the golden hour light. I was struck by the negative space between the branches. Is there a symmetry to how the leaves fall? Do we look at a dying tree like we look at a painting?

Every time I go to Green-Wood, I see new details in the carvings. This time, I saw what looked to be a Masonry trowel carved into a set of stairs. Could it be a totally new reference to the Freemasons, whose square and compass symbol adorns many of the graves?

I also saw a very cute stone chair attached to the base of a grave — for a toddler when they visit? I wondered why someone would carve this. Perhaps to center the living even when they encounter the dead? I envisioned past generations of children coming to Green-Wood and grappling with these questions. What would our lives be like if we awakened to the reality of death as children?

I kept noticing funerary statues of stoic women with a hand on their heart, gazing off into the distance. I identified with them, saw in them my anguish and my hope. I thought of the horrors my matriarchs experienced, unimaginable to me. And yet, they continue looking toward some glowing future.

As I finished up my walk, I felt they were lending me some of their bravery. It takes courage to strive for a better future. Change requires embodiment and risk, and it asks us to step outside of ourselves.

I left with questions: Is there an art to walking freely, or does meandering open us to see more clearly? How about political action? What would the Situationist International make of wandering now? What can we imagine beyond our current democracy?

In the 21st century, I think liberation looks like slowing down and paying close attention. I think it’s fearless compassion. It means connecting to our shared past to build a just future.