Guernica Magazine

Mourn and Organize

Faced with so much loss, we need space not simply for coping, but for mobilizing against the forces that allow such losses to happen.
Scherezade Garcia’s The Corona Altar on display at the Historic Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery, 2020. Photo by Walter Wlodarcyzk, courtesy of Scherezade Garcia

This essay is a part of “Memory Loss,” a series co-published with Urban Omnibus.

We lined up outside the Historic Chapel on Halloween: six feet apart as has become usual, and masked, but some of us unusually so. A volunteer, tasked with maintaining COVID-safe densities, ushered us into the austere chamber. At the far end, tiers of candles cast flickering light over a vivid, life-size painting of a weeping woman, identified by a sign as a “cinnamon-colored Statue of Liberty.” Chains of marigolds and bouquets of roses wound between the lights. Pieces of candy, Tupperwares of homemade food, and bottles of Coke and whiskey anchored photographs scrawled with devotional messages in several languages.

The Corona Altar was the work of artist Scherezade Garcia, one in a series of programs and installations presented at Green-Wood Cemetery under the banner of “Death Education.” With burials on the decline in recent years, these programs have been central to reinventing the cemetery’s role in the city: leveraging the historic landscape to examine death and mourning at a sort of remove, through a cultural lens. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the boundary between art about mourning and actual mourning has blurred. Judging from the long line outside the chapel, and the spiking attendance at Green-Wood’s other, now-digital Death Education programs, New Yorkers are hungry for a place to bring the questions, both practical and existential, that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. “Take time within the space to reflect on those we have lost,” the Altar sign instructed, so we did.

In April, photographs of refrigerated trucks parked outside city hospitals and scores of coffins lined up for temporary mass burial on Hart Island shook New York. By May, Green-Wood’s crematorium was working at more than double its normal rate. The backlog required operators to clock seventeen-hour shifts, booking appointments five weeks into the future. Services sprawled into the parking lot.

But, these brutal accommodations notwithstanding, the scale of our losses has been hard to locate in the daily fabric of urban life. For all death’s new omnipresence, even Green-Wood has seen hundreds of thousands more visitors coming simply for the open space, rather than to grapple with loss. On weekdays, neighborhood schools have sent students and teachers to find space for socially distanced learning among the graves. Urban space has transformed to accommodate the pandemic paradigm shift in so many ways—homes rigged up as workplaces, public parks retrofitted for privacy, roads revamped as dining plazas—that

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