Time’s Carcass

“We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just much as another man during an hour.  Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcass.”    Karl Marx

An episode from my 1990 travel journal was brought to mind by anticipating Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which is set around Highgate Cemetery:

“You shouldn’t have to pay to go to a cemetery,” the pensioner said with a grin that made the most of his three remaining teeth.  He lifted the chicken wire fence a meter off the ground….

An unemployed actor, I was making a short visit to London on horded pennies and had decided it was a waste of money to take a bus from the tube station.  Trekking stubbornly trekked uphill, against the wind, I must have made a turn I shouldn’t have.   After more than the 10-15 minutes the guidebooks implied, along roads that seemed oddly deserted for midday, I found myself near what looked like the back end of some cemetery — but not necessarily the famous one I was looking for.  Two shabby men were deep in conversation on the street. They were the first people I’d seen since getting off the train. If there had been only one, or if they’d been standing in front of a pub, I might not have had the nerve to approach, but as there were the two and it was a library, I asked if they could tell me where to find the entrance to Highgate Cemetery.

The more animated of the two, a grey man in a duffle coat of uncertain color and a raveled muffler, eyed me from head to toe.  Taking in my too-thin sweater, long black skirts and boots as dusty as his own, he must must have judged me more of a pilgrim than a tourist.  Travel in jeans and running shoes, and the logo on your jacket might as well say ‘Made in USA – Rip Me Off or Lead Me Astray.”  Me, I disappear into the scenery.

“The main gate is up the road, but I can show you my own particular way.”  He winked and led me around to where the tower block was hidden from the random visitor.  I’m not guessing these were council flats — I know they were because along the way he told me so, together with his thoughts on unemployment, disaffected youth and Mrs. Thatcher’s government.

We crossed an empty cement courtyard, where a few abandoned bicycles rusted gently under the scrubby trees.  I didn’t see another living soul.  Where was he leading me, this character out of Dickens, with his carbuncular nose and fingerless gloves?  “Nearly there,” he winked again.  “Now when you get in, you don’t go telling anyone how you got there.  If they found out about this hold, they’d be after closing it up.”

I don’t know what I’d been thinking, but this was the first I realized he was sneaking me in.  I started explaining that I’d been looking for a regular entrance, that I was okay with an admission fee, but he was insistent.  “You shouldn’t have to pay to go into a cemetery,” he said and he lifted the chicken wire a meter off the ground.  “With all they collect, the upkeep is shocking,” he added, by way of making his case.

I ducked under the fence, yanking my skirt out from under the portcullis as he let the fence back down.  I was facing what looked to be a construction site.  Surely this wasn’t the grand Victorian mortuary garden I’d read about?  Was he trying to teach me some kind of lesson?

“This here’s the new part over this way,” he nodded reassuringly.  “They’ve been doing some digging up.  Mind how you go.”

“Thank you,” I started to say.

“No thanks,” he said, “but what you could do is pay your respects to Karl Marx.”  He pointed over my head at the far corner of the section.  “You’ll find him alright.  You can’t miss him.”

He was right; it was impossible to miss that big black stone head.  I quickly paid the admission fee my particular gatekeeper had asked, then rambled the grounds for several hours in search of residents I wanted to visit for my own sake.

That was 19 years ago.  The hole is certainly closed up by now, and the cemetery’s  upkeep is no longer shocking, so I don’t think I’m betraying a trust to set this down where it can be read.  Whether my pensioner is still doing gentle battle for his ideals or is by now himself resting in some quiet plot, I send him my respects.

Material Afterworld

I’ve been thinking about Hafnefer, an Egyptian “mistress of? the house” during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom.

Hafnefer (or Hafnefret, as it is alternatively transliterated) and her husband Ramose. were the parents of Senemut, who was himself the chief architect, vizier and/or lover (depending on who you read) of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsup.  No doubt, in their lifetimes, their high-achieving son gave them a nice villa and round the clock care.  By the time his mother died, he was also in a position to provide her with an absolutely top drawer burial.

Without that maternal reward, Hafnefer would likely have disappeared into history without a trace.  But her hair was dressed with false braids, she was carefully mummified and she was laid to rest behind a gold-leave funerary mask.  She was surrounded by elegant grave goods: a magnificent heart scarab, on a chain of plated gold; a beautifully carved wooden chair; chests filled with carefully folded linen; thin soled sandals; a leather tambourine; a highly polished bronze mirror, like a full moon on a stick.

Hundreds of years later, archaeologists broke the seal. She should have disappeared without a trace, but she left her trace — her name and those of her husband and son, and the grave goods that provide footnotes to the outline of a life that scholars have cobbled together for a “mistress of the house.”

Do we know who she really was?  what she did, what she thought or felt?  There’s no way to know any of that from what was left behind.  But even when people leave behind masses of documentation, there’s a compulsion to try and understand them through their belongings. When the possessions of Marilyn Monroe were auctioned off a few years ago, I remember a cookbook being discussed as the key to a new understanding of the “real Marilyn.”

I’ve often thought about what I will or won’t be leaving behind.  The traditional routes to immortality are to produce children, or institutions or great art.  Maybe it’s not such a dead end (so to speak) to leave nothing behind but stuff.  Whatever you leave behind, it seems the important thing is to make certain someone knows its yours.  What the future makes of you will be history.

Many of the burial goods belonging to Hafnefer are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  If you angle yourself properly in front of the case, you can see yourself reflected in her mirror.