“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is American short-story writer Amy Hempel’s very first short story published in her collection Reasons to Live in 1985. The story is narrated by an unnamed first-person narrator who has come to visit her dying friend but is unable to face the reality and inevitability of her death.
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried | Summary
The story begins in a middle of a conversation with the narrator’s dying friend, also unnamed, asking her to talk about useless things that she would not mind forgetting. The narrator obliges by talking about insects not getting wet in the rain, Bing Crosby owning the first tape recorder in the US, and the shape of the moon. The CCTV camera in the ceiling makes her self-conscious but her friend encourages her to go on, reassuring her that she will get used to being watched. She goes on, telling her about the first chimpanzee who was taught to communicate via sign language and lied to her caretakers. She tells her friend that there are tragic parts in the chimpanzee’s story, but she asks her to skip the sad bits. The narrator is uncomfortable with the face mask that she is compelled to wear in the hospital where her friend is admitted, close to Hollywood.
Her friend introduces her to a nurse as “the Best Friend”, the use of the article “the” instead of the conventional “my” tells the narrator that she and the nurse are close. They recount the silly things they did while in college, and the narrator thinks that the nurse and her friend are wondering what took her so long to come to visit her dying friend, although they do not ask.
The narrator is uncomfortable at the sight of her friend’s dying body. She uses wry humour as a defence mechanism to cope with the notion of her own death. She brings up Elisabeth Kubler-Rosses Five Stages of Grief Model to joke about her death. As she laughs, the narrator “cling(s) to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.” Her friend asks her to tell her stories about animals as she likes them, and she tells her stories about hearing-ear dogs.
There is a “Good Doctor” and a “Bad Doctor” in the hospital. The “Bad Doctor” is strict and checks the IV every time he enters the room, and the “Good Doctor” is cheerful and is “a little in love” with her friend, so he asks the narrator to go out to the beach for an hour so that the two of them can spend some time alone. On her way out, her friend asks her to bring back something for her – anything except magazine subscriptions.
Out on the beach, the narrator notices the weather appears to be like “earthquake weather”, with stifling heat and stuffiness. Her friend once said that an earthquake never happens when one is thinking about it, so she keeps thinking about it and keeps repeating “earthquake” in her mind. It doesn’t work, however, and she remembers the time that an aftershock of the massive earthquake of 1972 left a crack in the ceiling. She remembers how they have joked about stuff like that in the past while making plans for the future. She couldn’t talk to her friend about the future anymore, now that she is dying.
The doctors have stopped saying ‘if’ and have gone to the more ominous “when”. She is afraid of death, but her friend is not. The narrator is also afraid of flying which again, her friend is not afraid of. Now, however, at the brink of death, her friend is afraid, and the narrator thinks she is right to be so. The “aggressive health” of teenage boys and girls on the beach triggers the narrator, reminding her of their contrast with her best friend. When she gets back to the hospital, there’s a second bed beside that her friend. Looking at it, the narrator is reminded of an open coffin. She thinks –“She wants my life.” They joke about earthquakes and clerics, and she reads her friend unimportant news articles from a paper, news that is funny and trivial. The two of them eat ice cream while watching a movie, as she misses her friend already. A nurse comes in and sedates her friend, and they both fall asleep.
When her friend wakes up, the narrator declares that she wants to go back home. As her best friend, she feels “weak and small and failed”, not even able to offer her the promise to come back. The thought of escaping her best friend’s death, however, exhilarates her, and she fantasizes about cocktails and bars that she will visit. Hearing this, however, her friend reacts violently, pulling off her oxygen mask, jumping off the bed and running away from the room. As a hoard of doctors, nurses and the narrator follow her, two nurses are finally able to catch her and calm her down.
The day that her best friend dies is referred to as “the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried”. She enrols in a “Fear of Flying” class the very same day and on being asked about her worst fear, says “I will finish this course and still be afraid.”
The narrator keeps a glass of water on her table to see if the ground beneath her feet is shaking, or just her. She remembers all the useless things, the ones that her best friend would have wanted not to remember. She remembers small, physical gestures of her friend from the hospital, “a kiss through surgical gauze, the pale hand correcting the position of the wig”, which she had noted while they happened, and not in retrospect.
She remembers the chimpanzee who had learnt to communicate through sign language. She had a baby who she would talk to, with her hands, and sing to him. And when the baby died, she still kept signalling with her hands for the baby to come and hug her, “fluent now in the language of grief.”
In The Cemetery Where Al Johnson is Buried | Analysis
The story is beautifully told and deeply moving, mimicking the experience of grief and denial in its structure. The narrative structure is akin to a stream of consciousness, although it does not flow from one character to the other. It is rather like a montage of memories being recalled, not strictly following a linear chronological structure, but shifts back and forth between different memories being brought to mind, one leading on to another.
As such, there is no detail spared to develop or even really explain the characters or the plot. The story is structured like an experience and the death of the narrator’s best friend is the experience that it centres on. The anonymity of both friends enhances the intimacy of the first-person narration.
The story focuses more on the narrator’s experience of coping with the death of her best friend, rather than her dying. The narrative time and again portrays the narrator’s way of coping through denial, trying to escape the death of her friend. It takes her a long time to come to visit her in the hospital, despite knowing. She even attempts to abandon her friend and go back home, leading to her breakdown. She admits that she is afraid of death, which her friend is not, initially. Instead of denial, the latter tries to cope with her own impending death through dry humour, which might momentarily reduce the terrifying nature of the unknown i.e., death. This reflects a very existential attempt from her side to give meaning to her own life through comedy and humour that keeps the great existential void of death at bay, making her forget momentarily. Towards the end, however, she admits that she is afraid.
The narrator’s trauma and denial are so great that it goes to the extent that she cannot even name the event of her friend’s death directly, terming it as “the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried” instead. The earthquakes act as a symbol of the inner turmoil that keeps shaking the ground beneath her feet, while the idea that an earthquake never occurs when one thinks reflects the hope that the narrator subconsciously harbours, that the death of her friend could be stalled if she constantly keeps thinking about it. This however does not happen, and she refuses to directly confront the trauma resulting from the experience. Her fear is so extreme that on realising that her friend wants her to spend the night at the hospital with her, her immediate response is to think that “She wants my life”, reflecting her attempts to detach herself from the reality of death.
The class that she takes to reduce her fear of flying is also a subconscious effort to cope with her fear of facing death, and the fear that she would still be afraid to face it after the class, or the story, is over.
The example of the mother chimpanzee expressing her grief over the death of her child is extremely evocative and acts as a proxy for the narrator grieving her friend. Like the chimpanzee, she is also unable to accept the death of her friend and keeps trying to escape that reality.
In The Cemetery Where Al Johnson is Buried | Themes
Death – Death is one of the central themes of the story, with the narrator’s best friend being on the verge of dying, both trying to reconcile with the idea of death in different ways. The experience of a loved one’s death however takes precedence over dying itself as the narrator is the focus of the story.
Grief/Coping – The novel is structured like the experience of grief that the narrator has before and after the death of her best friend. She is unable to reconcile herself with her friend’s death and adopts various defence mechanisms like repression and denial to escape from this reality. While she does have an escapist attitude, it is her absolute love for her friend, and the extreme trauma of losing her, that stands out in the story.
In The Cemetery Where Al Johnson is Buried | Characters
The Narrator – The clear protagonist of the story, the focus is primarily on the narrator’s experience of the loss of her friend, rather than death itself. She is unable to face the reality of her friend’s death and takes a variety of measures to try to not deal with it directly, like not naming the event or place of death directly, and enrolling on a “Fear of Flying’ class on the very day of her death, hoping that it would help her get over her inability to accept her friend’s death too.
The Dying Friend – While the experience of one’s own death is not the focus of the story, it does show us glimpses of the narrator’s friend trying to cope with the idea of her own upcoming death through irony and humour. She is depressed and numb in the beginning, not afraid of her own death. However, as the time comes closer, the fear creeps into her too as she attempts to derive more comfort from her best friend’s company, inviting her to spend the night at the hospital with her.
Significance of the Title
The title “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”, sums up the narrator’s experience of coping with grief through denial, referring to the death of her friend indirectly through the reference to the cemetery where the singer Al Jolson lies, unable to confront her death directly.