On the day of the primary elections, I met a man who was sitting under an umbrella, holding up a campaign sign. He told me that Vicksburg, Mississippi‘s population has stayed stagnant since he moved here in the 1960s.
“It’s a dead town,” he said.
We were in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge, where my polling place was, and across from the parking lot was a warped metal fence with a rusty sign above the gate to enter the plot of land near us. It said, “Zoellinger’s Cemetery.” Even though the cemetery was unkempt, with grass growing like a head of hair on a hungover hooker, with piles of dead branches in the corner, the community was using Zoellinger’s Cemetery, it seemed, to this day, with fresh graves next to ones so old the engraving on the tombstones was worn off. The names of the dead were varied — not all kin to Zoellinger.
In the North, we think that death is something apart from us — we pay money to give it pomp. In Manhattan, they cross a bridge to bury the dead in Queens — no new graves nearby. Death is rendered hygienic. It is given something a corrupt politician might call plausible deniability.
Not so down South. Death is the next-door neighbor, an inevitability closer in fact than taxes, which might be evaded, a shadow stretched in gothic proportions over every aspect of the quotidian.
Zoellinger’s Cemetery is a mom-and-pop operation, no connection to any church. It is century-old business at least, judging by the tombstones, but I suspect that the worn stones I mentioned before are an indication that the place has been used as a graveyard since before the Battle of Vicksburg, which changed everything here.
Of course, the churches around here have cemeteries, too, often enough — but it is not considered strange to bury the dead in the back yard, to use one’s neighbor’s home-overgrown cemetery instead of the church.
That archetypical Southern man, Elvis Presley, is buried at home — exhumed, in fact, to place him at Graceland. He’s out back by the kidney-shaped swimming pool. You can see him if you stand on the diving board. If you want to wave — go ahead. Around here, that wouldn’t be considered more than a minor eccentricity, the cracking of a knuckle, the humming of a tune. Death is like daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us. We’re all trespassers down here, walking on the land of the historically departed, the familial and the familiar wraiths who haunt both battlefield and supermarket.
There is no surprise at a new sighting of a ghost in Vicksburg and the surrounding area. In fact, if you go to the old courthouse, now defunct, on at least one night a week, you can take a ghost tour of the old city. Ghosts are part of the community at least as much as the living are.
Even events associated with the renewal of life — with the ceremonies of youth — have the vestiges of this death pall upon them. When local couples get married, they often go to a mansion that burned down years ago and stand in the ruins between the columns for wedding pictures. No one sees the irony or the malediction in this. There are several memorials to the Confederate dead on the campus of Ole Miss, who were indeed numerous among those who had attended the institution in the 1850s and 1860s. And yes, at the City College of New York, there is a memorial plaque to those students who went off and fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War (a more noble lost cause, to be sure), but students are not forever tapped on the shoulder by these phantoms in the way that the young are here. It is not that they are consciously courting the dead. Rather, it is that the dead are always there, like a quiet elderly relative at a family reunion, parked in front of the television in dementia, neither bothered nor bothersome. The dead are as present to the young Mississippians as are any distant relatives over the age of 65 — to be respected but largely ignored, except at moments like graduation and wedding days, when one might send a note in the hopes of receiving a gift.
And what gift does a good grandson receive from the Confederate dead and the relatives buried out in the backyard? I admit this is unclear to me. I suppose the one valuable gift is a sense of continuity, that the path of the generations remains intact.
There is a hymn that is popular down here about this. The lyrics written in 1907 by Ada R. Habershon are as follows:
- There are loved ones in the glory
- Whose dear forms you often miss.
- When you close your earthly story,
- Will you join them in their bliss?
- Will the circle be unbroken
- By and by, Lord, by and by?
- There’s a better home awaiting
- In the sky, Lord, in the sky
- In the joyous days of childhood
- Oft they told of wondrous love
- Pointed to the dying Saviour;
- Now they dwell with Him above.
- You remember songs of heaven
- Which you sang with childish voice.
- Do you love the hymns they taught you,
- Or are songs of earth your choice?
- You can picture happy gath’rings
- Round the fireside long ago,
- And you think of tearful partings
- When they left you here below.
- One by one their seats were emptied.
- One by one they went away.
- Now the family is parted.
- Will it be complete one day?
- This song asks a question that the practice of keeping the dead close by seems to answer. If the dead are forever at hand, then those seats are never really empty, the family is never really parted. The circle is already unbroken here, and even as we go to vote at the Elk’s lodge, we know that imminently the ephemera of this election will evaporate into the greater truth of Vicksburg, that the dead outnumber the living — until the rapture raises them without their guns, their sabres, their cigarettes, their broken bottles of Mad Dog 40/40, and the defeats of this world will never again matter to any of us. Nothing is extinguished, even now.