The Cemetery Exercist 

by

11/01/2020

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Ridgewood


A cemetery was never a place I imagined myself doing squats. But in late March, when New York City shut down gyms and public parks and braced itself for a deadly COVID-19 outbreak, I found myself at the gates of Evergreens Cemetery in Queens, sporting black leggings and a pink hoodie, ready to sweat.

Like many New Yorkers, I had been ordered to work from home beginning on an ominous Friday the 13th, which I had treated like any other “work from home” day. I took myself to lunch at a busy neighborhood bistro in Ridgewood. And in the evening I worked out at the local gym and met a friend for dinner in Bushwick. I still remember my friend opening his arms to me when I arrived at the restaurant. “Come at me, Coronavirus!” he joked as I went in for a hug. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I’d hug a friend.

The following week we watched in horror as confirmed cases in New York climbed to over 2,000. Restaurants and gyms closed their doors (many for good). I knew it was bad when even spam callers phishing for social security numbers stopped contacting me. 

In the meantime, my partner Peter and I played it safe. We caged ourselves up in our tiny apartment, afraid of viral exposure. After a week indoors, I was desperate for some fresh air. Under normal circumstances, I’d walk to a nearby park or take a bike ride through Brooklyn. But my neighborhood had closed all its public parks, and it was still too cold for a bike ride.

As I thought about where to go, I remembered that most of Queens is a giant graveyard. I live adjacent to what’s dubbed the Queens “Cemetery Belt” where more than five million people are buried. Here, the dead outnumber the living by more than two to one. The sea of headstones is so large that it’s reportedly visible from space.

This gentrification by the dead happened back in the 19th century, when Manhattan churchyards ran out of space, resulting in shallow mass graves that caused outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever, and unimaginable odors. So in 1847, the state passed a law, opening the way for hundreds of bodies to be exhumed and dumped in Queens.

As someone who finds death unsettling, I thought twice about doing laps in a cemetery. But my options were limited. Every public space was closed, and I wanted to avoid walking around aimlessly. I figured since people avoid graveyards, more than they avoid viruses, a cemetery might be the safest place to be.

The first thing I noticed when I got to Evergreens Cemetery was just how nice it felt to feel the sun again. The cemetery was empty, except for maintenance workers tending to graves. As I walked by them, they all silenced their leaf blowers. It was nice to smile at a stranger for a change. Even though it was sunny, the graves against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline felt sinister. It made me think of how New Yorkers always described how blue the morning sky was on 9/11, as if any sign of happiness should be met with suspicion.

It was March 20th and reports were coming in from Italy that they didn’t have enough ventilators. Patients were dying alone. My friend called me that morning to tell me she got laid off, along with 4,695 other employees at her company. “Without work, I go to dark places,” she said. Halfway through my walk I burst into tears. For the first time, I felt the world was falling apart. 

As I walked out of the cemetery, a flock of birds began circling overhead. They were straight out of a Hitchcock film. I slowed down as I walked past, thinking that any second they would dive down and attack me. “It wasn’t COVID, but the birds that got her!” — I imagined my obituary reading.

They all landed between rows of graves. Hundreds of them chirping away. It isn’t often you get to see such an abundance of wildlife in the city. Unless, of course, you consider rats and street pigeons wildlife. The birds left such an impression on me that later I’d google cemetery birds in Queens, and find that for hundreds of years, U.S. graveyards have been repositories for urban biodiversity. They’ve become the home for thousands of unexpected and even undiscovered species. It seemed that the birds, like me, had found cemeteries a place of refuge.

*

By the end of March, it was clear the lockdown would go on for at least another month, maybe longer. If that was the case, I realized that I needed to find a way to get more exercise to help me stay healthy and sane. The railroad apartment I shared with Peter was too narrow to workout in, and the idea of jogging on the street in close proximity to other people, even with a mask on, felt irresponsible. It might be weird, I thought, but the cemetery could be a safe space.

As soon as I arrived at the cemetery and started jogging its little winding paths, with tombstones flanked on both sides, I took my mask off and felt a sense of calm wash over me. 

When I got to the end of the path, I sat down on a small patch of grass next to the tombstone of a Polish woman who died in 1942. I felt a little awkward working out next to her grave, but I looked around and there was no one else but me. Fuck it, I thought, and loaded a 30-minute high-intensity workout YouTube video on my phone and started doing squats.

A maintenance guy drove by. Normally, I would have stopped, embarrassed about doing squats in a graveyard, not wanting to be mistaken for those intense fitness people who exercise in grocery store lines and street corners. But I kept going. Near the end of my workout, I was in a down-dog position when a long glossy earthworm the color of rust slimed my hand. I pulled back in disgust and wondered if it scavenged the dead.

At home later, I told Peter about my workout and wondered out loud if it was disrespectful to be doing burpees and lunges at the graveyard. “Your Polish lady friend probably doesn’t get many visitors,” he said. “I’m sure she enjoys the company.”

“True,” I said. “But she’s probably jealous.”

“No one’s jealous of squats,” he reminded me.

So I kept going back. The maintenance guys would acknowledge me with a wave or a head nod. I imagined them speaking into their walkie-talkies, “Yo, squat girl is back.”

*

On April 4th, while I waited for our foster dog, a 70-pound pitbull named Stormy, to arrive at our apartment, I scrolled through three COVID-related death announcements on Facebook. I also texted my family that yes, it was true, refrigerated containers storing dead bodies were indeed parked outside nearby hospitals. 

Several times a day, we walked Stormy within a few block radius of our apartment. By then you couldn’t walk the streets of Ridgewood without running into a discarded mask or glove. Blue ones. Black ones. Transparent ones. The black plastic bodega bags and lottery tickets, which made up most of the street debris before COVID, had been replaced with personal protective equipment. On several occasions walking Stormy, we watched as medical personnel in hazmat gear carried out neighbors on gurneys. Flowers and candles were placed outside homes and businesses where someone had died. People, mostly of color, lined up three, four blocks for food donations from the local church.

Even though I wiped down Stormy’s paws every time we entered the apartment, it made me uncomfortable walking her around the neighborhood where COVID was clearly making its rounds. All the dog parks were closed. So naturally, I thought of taking her to the cemetery. Most cemeteries had “No Dogs Allowed” signs, but I decided I’d chance it anyway and feign ignorance if I got caught.

When the gravediggers saw me with Stormy, they waved, seemingly unfazed by my new companion. I found a long grassy area, empty of graves. It was the perfect size for a dog run. I threw a stick and Stormy ran after it like a bullet. She rolled around in the grass like a kid in a ball pit. I’d never seen her so happy.

Our trips to the cemetery became a daily routine. In between throwing the ball to Stormy, I’d do lunges, squats, and burpees. One day, one of the maintenance guys was mowing the lawn. He threw me a water bottle and gestured to Stormy. It was for her. Even though we both knew dogs weren’t allowed, there was a mutual understanding that we were all trying to hold on to what little moments of pleasure we had left. With so many people fighting over rolls of toilet paper and calling each other out for wearing (or not wearing) masks, this small act of kindness nearly brought me to tears.

Other times, the cemetery triggered a profound sadness. Like the day, an ice cream truck drove by and its jingle made me think of the phrase “saved by the bell,” a reference that originated from the use of safety coffins. Accidentally burying people alive was so common in the Victorian age that strings were attached to corpses and connected to a bell system above ground. The idea was that if the bell rang, the cemetery watchman would know that someone was buried alive and presumably be able to dig them out. Even though there is no record of anyone ever being saved by the bell, I thought about what it would be like to stand day and night next to the grave of a loved one waiting for the bell to ring.

There were times I didn’t feel like working out, but I went to the cemetery anyway. It was the end of April and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. As I walked underneath, I’d reach up and touch the soft pillowy petals. Occasionally, I went just to take a work call, preferring to be outside. Or I’d smoke a joint in the little grassy area, listening to the constant sound of ambulances driving by.

The cemetery had become so many things for me by then: my gym, my dog park, my crying corner, my office, my weed spot.

It made me think about a time when cemeteries weren’t just for shelving and memorializing the dead. In the 19th century, cemeteries acted as public parks, art museums, and botanical gardens. People flocked to them for picnics and sport (hunting, shooting, and carriage racing). At one point, Greenwood Cemetery attracted more tourists than Niagara Falls. It was a time when we allowed life and death to co-exist in our daily lives.

*

By May there were fresh graves every day. I’d see the diggers on small bulldozers lifting dirt until there was a large mound covered in green plastic. Even though I’d hardly ever see any visitors during the week, I started noticing that Sundays were the busiest. It was nice to see several people walking into the grounds carrying flowers, or a man standing over a grave with his mask on, communing with his dead.

Stormy and I expanded our reach to nearby cemeteries. As we walked on the little paths, I had a habit of trying to calculate how old each person was when they died. It pained me when someone died at 23 or 35 or 17 or 54. I’d wonder to myself, what the hell happened?

Sometimes I noticed smaller tombstones placed at the foot of larger ones. It took me a while to realize these were the tombstones of children. Born in 1918, died in 1918 one stated. Many of the engraved pictures had decayed over time. The faces scraped off like Scratch N’ Win tickets. Others were still intact. So this is what you looked liked in 1943, I thought. Other tombstones had been there for so long that they had been swallowed up by the earth, only the tops of them visible.    

*

Like many New Yorkers, I’ve since joined the ranks of the unemployed and left the city. Because Peter is Canadian born, we fled to a rural town on the west coast of Canada— the kind of place where you have to watch out for black bears and cougars, you heat your home with a wood stove, and most of what you eat comes from your own garden.

Most days I feel guilty about having abandoned New York. When we left, we put our entire apartment in storage, refusing to believe we wouldn’t be back.

On the bright side, we adopted Stormy and she flew with us to Canada. Now, instead of running on empty grave beds, she swims on empty pebbled beaches and runs through forests. I have no use for a cemetery anymore. And yet, I’ve found myself back at one.

In a small clearing in the woods, I recently encountered what is probably the smallest, loveliest cemetery I’ve ever seen. Tall cedar trees surround what may be only a hundred graves. I was told by a local that in the 1980s a young man had committed suicide, and because the Catholic church denies burials to suicide victims, his father built this cemetery himself. I sometimes imagine the father chopping down the forest single-handedly—an act of retaliation and grief. 

On my first visit there, I sat on a bench and watched the leaves and pollen of the forest drizzle down onto the grave beds. Most of the tombstones are quirky and look like they were decorated with items from a garage sale or Etsy. There are gnomes, fairies, wind chimes, and random personalized objects such as fishing hooks, Barbie dolls, and colorful pinwheels. There’s a frivolity and lightness to the cemetery that makes death feel more approachable. 

One of my favorite tombstones has replicas of household items embedded into the stone: a TV remote control, a bottle of Pabst Blue, and a Toronto Blue Jays coaster. Another tombstone includes a Star Trek inscription: “Beam me up, Scotty. There is no intelligent life on this planet.” Its flippancy feels like a celebration of life. It reminds me not to lose my sense of humor, despite the times we’re living in. Now, when I visit a cemetery, I don’t feel like I’m being dragged down into a depressing world. I’ll play catch with Stormy. I’ll smoke a joint. And sometimes, just for the hell of it, I’ll do a squat or two.

***

Vanessa Beatriz Golenia is a New York based writer currently living in Canada as a COVID refugee. You can find her work on Longreads, The Rumpus, and bathroom stalls around the world.

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§ One Response to “The Cemetery Exercist ”

  • Linda Boutilier says:

    This has changed my opinion on graveyards, your story really touched me in a good way, thank you for that. I can feel that instead of dread we can choose to feel the solice and peace of such a place. The thing your partner said about the old Polish lady enjoying the company really did it, sounds like a good place for soul searching.

    Linda Boutilier
    Powell River BC
    Canada

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