Monday, 10 March 2008

Death on a Sunday

I will draw this from my diary of Sunday...

It rained in the night, but stopped when the sun came up. The cathedral-top was spiked weirdly with storks, standing on the battlements drying out their wings and clacking their bills at one another. I took a long walk west.

It felt like a long way, but nothing is very far away in this compact city. I stopped at the big cemetery on the edge of town, always a good window into the local culture... or lack thereof.

First, the Mass. There´s a Sunday Mass each week at the cemetery, in a funeral chapel. (Of all the fabulous churches in this fabulous town, I choose this one!) It was a setting and group familiar to me from my childhood years in the US working-class Deep-South Bible-belt, a gathering someone else might think had an American Novel feel. William Faulkner, maybe. Anyway

The chapel was an oblong of concrete blocks, with two yellow pebble-glass windows on the altar end that let in little light. It was a dreary little place, with stains on the ceiling from the leaky roof, homemade doilies under the chipped plaster saints. The pews were simple wooden benches, moveable, with bits sticking out on the bottom to trip people as they passed. It felt like lots of the little Methodist or Baptist churches I´ve been in, except for the Our Lady of Carmel up front, and the Virgin of Solitude on one side (wearing a fierce pout!)and a truly gruesome, larger-than-life Dead Jesus in the back. The paint was all worn off his toes from a million kisses.

A small corps of ladies lit the candles and started praying litanies a half-hour before the service was set to start, led by a cadaverous man and his tiny mother. I slipped outside for a while to wander among the great sea of tombs. I saw the chapel was starting to fill up, people filtered toward it from all directions, walking slowly, looking rather vacantly at the scudding clouds or the ground. The wind blew. The plastic bouquet wrappers rattled. Cats howled in the distance. I was slipping from a Faulkner novel into a Romero zombie movie there for a minute!

Back at the chapel the prayers went on, interrupted periodically by newcomers who slammed the door, tripped over the pews, and greeted those praying with the usual two-cheek kisses. They then staggered over the kneelers on their way back to kiss Dead Jesus. I was glad to be a stranger in the crowd. I didn´t feel like kissing anyone. Or any thing, for that matter.

The priest came sweeping in, a Dominican with a widow´s peak and a bad attitude. He waved a couple of men into the sacristy and proceeded to bollock them for something easily heard over the "Señor ten piedads." The chapel was dark, and I thought the candlelight was on purpose. But evidently there was no electricity, and these two were somehow culpable. Ah, the Old Time religion, dispensed by a Dominican... those jolly souls who brought the Inquisition to Spain!

All three came back out, the priest waved his hand like an orchestra conductor, and the litany stopped dead in mid-rogation.

The Gospel was -- I am not making this up -- Jesus´ resurrecting the dead Lazurus. OK, here we have the weeping virgins, the horror-show Jesus, howling winds, the priest with the Bela Lugosi hair, and now Martha saying one of my very favorite verses from the Bible. (She´s warning Jesus that Lazurus has been dead in that tomb for three days, and "Lord, surely he stinketh." ) Not to mention the thousands of former Salamantinos buried in neat rows for acres round about.

Then the clouds covered the sun, and the yellow windows went dark, and the room was plunged into half-light... ooh!

The cemetery is less than 200 years old, or at least this incarnation is. They keep digging up and recycling the family plots, replacing the old-fashioned tablets and memorials as new and better-known family members take their places. Way off in one corner I found the "civil" cemetery, the unconsecrated part where unbaptized babies, unidentified bodies, poor people, suicides, and Protestants are put. (The poor people make their own memorials out of sheet iron, paint, and concrete. I find them much more moving than the shiny marble monstrosities farther up the hill.)

Over here too, in a newly excavated patch of ground, is a ´fossa,´ a mass grave for the Salamaninos who ended up on the losing side of the Civil War and the wrong end of a gun. Spain is just now coming to terms with this national lunacy, and is finally acknowledging their landscape is littered with graves. These dead are finally being given memorial stones and names. There´s a brand-new memorial wall in the corner that lists their names and the dates of several years´ worth of executions. A few more victims were put in family tombs nearby, including two brothers rousted from their beds in the wee hours of an April morning, whose bodies now lie together in the Big Sleep.

On the other end of the cemetery is a 110-year-old mausoleum with the sculpture portrait of a mean old woman glaring down the sidewalk. It smells really bad over there, and the reason went running away in every direction when I stepped closer: Cats. Right under the old lady´s nose were two split-open bags of cat food. The epitaph round the corner explained it all. The long-departed woman left money enough to feed the local cats to perpetuity, and her stony form can still enjoy their company, if not their tomcat scent.

Fun walk. But The Lebanese Cafe on the way back doesn´t serve Lebanese food.

I had two pilgrims in last night: a biker from Girona and a hiker from Malaga. It´s nice to have life in the place... The last three nights I´ve been alone in this very lovely, clean, perfectly peaceful oasis.

Now that I´ve creeped you out, I will maybe tell you next about the Basque guy who comes over with pinchos from his bar. Some really weird, but very yummy food!

1 comment:

Teri said...

Great picture you painted. Being early Spring and after the pre-dawn rain, I'm wondering if "damp" was part of it too. Great story.