Frames of Calvary

Frames of Calvary

On Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 5:15 in the afternoon I set off from my dormitory to the Calvary Cemetery in Arlington, New York. The light was beginning to fade so I quickly made the walk behind Jewett house, and one block down Fairmount Ave to Lagarage Ave where I figured the entrance to the Cemetery would be. Once I turned down Lagarage, I could see a few open lots near the end of the street. I knew I had made it to the right place. It was strange how wide this otherwise unremarkable sidestreet had become. There were a couple cars parked on the perimeter, but I was impressed by how open this asphalt field appeared to be. The emptiness of this quiet street was sort of eerie knowing that dusk was falling and that the cemetery approached.

Once I entered the gate I stopped and looked at the sign. A stone engraved Jesus on the cross welcomed me. This made more sense after I looked up the definition of Calvary on my phone. Noun, 1: an open-air representation of the crucifixion of Jesus, 2: an experience of usually intense mental suffering. Keeping this in mind, a series of mammoth shrubberies, planted behind the hailing crucifix, directed my attention to the field of tombstones. From this vantage point, it was difficult to tell just how far the cemetery extended backward to Kenyon hall. While a prominent One Way traffic sign directed me to go straight, the golden light of the sun setting drew me to walk down the asphalt path towards the Kenyon volleyball courts which were just in sight.

Once I started walking down this paved path it became clear to me that this was the primary axis of movement. To my left, a glistening chain link fence and a line of shrubberies and mature trees created a visual border directing my gaze down this long straight path. It was difficult to see the end of the graveyard since a row of aged conifers bisected the lengthy expanse. While I crouched down to take a photo I could hear yelling coming from the house that I had walked past while entering the cemetery. A graveyard need not be too somber. After weeks of living in the relatively sterile conditions of a quarantined college campus, it was refreshing to hear other human beings, albeit in a quarrel. 

As I continued down the path, the repetitive rows of tombstones punctuated my movement in even intervals. There were five steps between the rows. My perception of time was punctuated by these regular intervals as I moved past row after row. The formality of the regimented grid controlled my movements in such a way that reinforced the linearity of the axial path. As I walked, I consciously moved perpendicularly to the rows of graves. Although the materiality of this space was grounded in the organically sensual, the rigid grid superimposed onto the landscape felt lifeless. The Dining Hall cast a shadow over this portion of the cemetery. Looking through this gridded system of stones, my field of vision was overlaid with a Brunelleschian structure of perspectivally oriented lines.

A brown paper bag tossed to the side of the path disrupted my movement through this exanimate euclidean space. The otherwise stillness of the dead grass, mucky snow, and the grey stones was disturbed by this piece of litter. I was reminded that it is a place where people go and perhaps have crispy chicken sandwiches for lunch. The lifelessness of this space was momentarily paused. As I contemplated the trash, a procession of three or four cars passed me on the road. Were they paying respects to a dead relative? I hid my camera behind my back. Once they passed I continued on down the straight flat path.

As I reached the end of the paved path the stones thinned out. Fresh graves. My journey down the path brought me progressively closer to the immediacy of death. As I walked down this delineated trail I also moved through decades of time approaching the raw present reality of the merciless pandemic. My arrival at the recently turned soil and untarnished stones felt like the point of the crescendo of this walk. Here death was most tactile. The open lots for future burials patiently waited. The unclaimed sections of a cemetery have an immense emptiness. Studying the mound of dirt in front of me, I could not help but think about my grandfather who was to be cremated a few hours later on the other side of the world.

Just as I captured the picture of the fresh grave, a group of geese loudly flew overhead. I instinctively turned upwards, with my eye still in the viewfinder, to take their photo. Eight geese, two planes, one cloud. I seized this moment as the opportunity for some introspection, probably performatively.

On my walk back towards the entrance, it was getting dark. Although the light was quickly fading, I was struck by just how visible campus appeared to be. It felt as though Vassar had subsumed the cemetery, with college buildings surrounding it on prominent two sides. Looking towards Cushing House, the dormitories felt incredibly present with their overwhelming mass. It was odd to watch cars and joggers as they passed down Kenyon Drive. While from behind the gravestones it was intuitive to look outwards to the sky and to the roofline of the dormitories, from campus one easily forgets there is a cemetery just a stone throw away. Despite the substantial presence of the campus architecture, the flat aura of this place was distinct.

As I neared the end of the path, I heard the shouts of young boys racing down the road. One on a bike, the other on a scooter, the two of them rapidly approached on the far path. As they made their way towards me, I crouched down between the rows of stones and took their photo as they passed. The long processional road clearly made an excellent racetrack. Following them was a woman with a stroller who made no attempt to keep up. Like the unknown owner of the Crispy Chicken Sandwich who might have had lunch within this suburban necropolis, the racing children reminded me that this space need not have such prescriptive terms of use. The asphalt was smooth and flat after all. It was not lost on me that the pedestrian path that I had elected to take was actually the road for the hearse.

I left the cemetery quickly without ceremony. It was getting dark and I had a funeral to livestream. I was honestly eager to leave. As I made my way back to Josselyn House I thought it would be nice to get one last glimpse of the tombstones before they were enveloped by nightfall. Looking back at them from between the illuminated orbs of North Gate they did appear somewhat invisible. To walk between the stones is its own experience altogether.

for Professor Elet’s Villas & Gardens Seminar
spring 2021