To the Gods Below

By John P. O'Grady

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My book buying is serious business. I consider each purchase as others do a cemetery plot.

They are called the Mourners. I first read about them in a book. I don’t remember which one. These carved alabaster statues from the Late Middle Ages are in San Francisco for a four-month stay, lodged in a museum that sits atop the hill in Lincoln Park. The museum is surrounded by a golf course that used to be a graveyard. Actually, it’s still a graveyard, just a forgotten one. A century ago all the monuments—or most of them—were bulldozed over the sea-cliffs into the waters of the Golden Gate. Meanwhile the dead, several thousand of them, were left to rest in a somewhat diminished peace. The scruffy lupine and fragrant coastal sage that ran wild over the modest graves quickly yielded to lush fairways and well-manicured greens as the abandoned dead moldered away below. Nobody alive today remembers any of this. Museum visitors take in the view while golfers enjoy their carefree rounds. Some memory, however, is preserved in books, few of which are digitally accessible.

The museum is not the most popular in the city, perhaps due to its distance from downtown. It is located in a district once known as the Outside Lands, but these days people just say “out in the avenues.” Nearby is a place called Lands End. Muni has a bus stop at the museum’s front door, but few riders use this line. Most visitors—generally an older crowd—arrive on tour buses or drive their own vehicles. I live in the neighborhood, so I usually walk, cross lots, over the links on weekday mornings when golfers are scarce. It’s a relaxing stroll. A foghorn groans in the distance. Birds maunder on the grass. The air is fragrant of earth and sea. Signs posted on trees say, Danger: Active Golf Course. And hidden away, among clumps of senescent cypress, is the occasional derelict monument.

One day I visit the Mourners in the stately chambers provided them by the museum. The place is a labyrinth of dusky vaults linked by ill-lit hallways. To enter such a place is to become insubstantial. The Mourners themselves—mustered in an exhibition gallery deep inside the building—form a cortege of 37 exquisitely executed figures, each about the height of a diminutive garden gnome. They float on their pedestals like noctilucent clouds, with hardly an anchor in our world. The museum catalog notes with listless irony that the statues were “designed to be in permanent mourning, never to be part of an exhibition.” Yet here they are, alluring in their foreignness. Are they orphans of time or urchins of eternity? No matter, for they seem right at home in these crepuscular recesses, close by the Rodin Room, where portions of his Gates of Hell are on display.

Their ranks include a bishop, several monks, cantors, choirboys, courtiers, and maybe a merchant or two, but no women. One Mourner holds a candlestick, another a broken cross; several clutch books, some open, some closed. More than one sports a dagger on his belt. Cloaked and cowled, they all look rather sad, some even wiping away tears, ready to resume the doleful procession they were designed for. They verge on some great abyss of inconsolability opened up by the loss of the second Duke of Burgundy, a fellow by the name of John the Fearless. He died in 1419. Word has it that he was a powerful political figure and patron of the arts.

When the French museum that houses these figures began major renovations a few years back, the Mourners of John the Fearless were granted leave from their cloisters and sent abroad on tour. Seven museums across the United States signed on to host them. The one here in San Francisco is the next-to-last stop before the statues return to France. Around this neighborhood, with so many unremembered dead lying about, the Mourners have their work cut out for them.

The Mourners

Occupying the shadows along the wall of the Mourners’ exhibition gallery is a museum guard. He looks at nothing while watching everything. The only other people with me in this dream-dim room are an elderly couple. The man wears a hat, the woman a fragile look of perplexity. They are contemplating a Mourner statue that stands on a platform at the gallery entrance. She speaks to her husband in gossamer words: “They are lovely, but I find all this very confusing.” The man says nothing. The two are holding hands.

The Mourner under consideration has a cowl drawn down over his head. His cloaked left hand dabs unseen tears from an unseen face. Dangling from his right is a satchel bulging with the form of a book—probably a psalter or missal—but imagination knows no bounds. Say instead it is an item more rare, a volume old and crumbling, borrowed from the monastery library, a little light reading—maybe some Heraclitus or Lucretius—to distract our poor monk, if only for a short spell, from the endless woe that is these Mourners’ lot. Though carved from cold stone and shrouded from view, this book, the mere promise of it, suggests some comfort.

These book-toting Mourners become for me, the bibliophile, a kind of “strange attractor,” which in physics refers to the emergence of a pattern amid what otherwise appears roiling chaos. Human passions are like this too. In the midst of a turbulent and unfathomable grief, the mind is sometimes arrested by the most innocuous of details—for instance, the view from a hospital window on a “smoke-free campus,” where across the street in a city park abloom with forsythia, doctors and nurses on break are standing beneath bare trees, enjoying cigarettes, even into the wee hours of night. Flotsam for the drowning to cling to.

Reading perhaps is rooted in the grave. Ancient evidence suggests as much. After the great Homeric epics of the 8th century BCE, the next flowering of Greek literature took the form of brief lyrics, elegiac couplets inscribed on sepulchral stones that sprouted across the Aegean landscape like mushrooms in the night. Literate passersby were accosted by these wayward mementos of mortality. Around each bend in the highway lurked a savage and vehement genius ready to ventiloquize the dead. The message usually ran something like, “Whoa, traveler, I was once like you—now look where I am!” The roadside memorials of our own time—with their rickety crosses, fading plastic flowers, and soggy teddy bears—are comparatively graceless yet growl the same warning: “Look here, you haggard commuter! Something bloody and terrible happened on this very spot! You could be next!” No wonder so many motorists take offense at seeing them. Who wants to sip their morning coffee while bearing down on a death’s head?

It would be fitting if every book published included in its imprint the customary phrase used by the Romans on their funerary monuments: Diis manibus, “to the gods below.” Reading, sleeping, and remembering are all commonplace activities leading to the underworld, yet seldom acknowledged as such. Who has not had the experience of being immersed in a book, of being transported to another world? Where exactly are “you” when this happens? The body remains sitting in its chair, or standing on the subway, or lying in bed, or maybe walking down the sidewalk—reading, we say. Although this body is you, it seems different from the you that is reading. That you is invisible, just like everything else in the underworld. Stranger still are those times we catch ourselves having read several pages in a book only to realize that the mind has “wandered,” the words somehow having failed to register. Where were “you” then? No memory remains of what just happened, save that time was lost.

One comes to suspect that the presiding deity here is Hermes, “Messenger of the Gods” and “Guide of Souls.” The written word is one of his gifts. His teachings, said to be inscribed on a precious emerald tablet, inspired ancient magicians, alchemists, and all manner of mystery monger. But Hermes is also a notorious trickster and patron of thieves. He gives as he takes. One version of the Orpheus story has it that when the poet took that fatal glance behind him, what he actually saw was his beloved Eurydice locked in passionate embrace with her divine escort. As the impish god caught the eye of our wavering poet, he gave a salacious wink, then led his eager paramour by the arm back into the depths. Beware the sweetness of whispers arising from below.

After paying my respects to the Mourners, I exit their gallery and descend marble stairs to the museum cellar, where the bookstore is located. I don’t know how but the elderly couple I saw upstairs are already down here among the books. The old man is still wearing his hat, the woman her perplexity. They are standing in front of a display of exhibition catalogs, holding hands as they weigh a decision. I make my way past them to a section of scholarly books that include such titles as The Dominion of the Dead and The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Time passes. My book buying is serious business. I consider each purchase as others do a cemetery plot.

On my bookshelf at home is a modest volume of local history, published some time ago, concerning the former graveyards of San Francisco. Functionaries in this city have never been very cordial toward Death and his precincts. That the quick are always outnumbered by the dead is simply one demographic that development interests have never been able to live with. Back in 1914, Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph gave a stirring speech calling for cemetery removal, in effect declaring war on the dead: “We must provide for the expansion of our city!” he intoned. “It must be a city of homes and not tombs!” And so, one by one, over the course of decades, nearly every burial ground in the city was excavated, evacuated, bulldozed, and built over. Much of that activity took place in this very neighborhood. My local history provides a colorful and sufficiently reliable account of what happened around here.

Back in 1909, the city of San Francisco was without a municipal golf course. One day a couple of avid golfers went down to City Hall to meet with the parks steward, a Scotsman by the name of John McLaren, to see what could be done to fix the situation. They were wealthy men and offered to pay the costs of construction if the city would make available a chunk of land. After hearing them out, McLaren jumped up excitedly and said, “Come with me!”

The avid but now confounded golfers were taken for a ride, out on the Cliff Line railway, toward the sandy heights of Point Lobos, where the fog comes in and the sun goes down. Back in those days, nary a living soul was to be seen out there. The golfers and their guide hopped off the railcar in front of an extensive, sloping swath of dune and scrub enclosed by teetering pickets. McLaren led them to a rusty gate. Sand was blowing in their faces. Then, with a splendiferous sweep of his arm, the parks steward said: “Behold your golf course!”

Not wanting to seem unmannerly, the golfers expressed polite apprehension. One of them stuck his thumb in the direction of an old sign nailed on the fence. It read, “City Cemetery.” The parks steward let out a big “Pshaw!”, walked over to the fence, and ripped the sign from the rotting boards. He flung it far into the lupines, then proclaimed, “I’ll have no phantoms in my parks!”

Plans were drawn up. Over the next several months, John McLaren supervised the work of day laborers as they knocked down neglected mausoleums and cleared out thousands of decaying wooden markers, planting in their stead long swards of green. By the end of the year, the industrious parks steward and his crew completed a three-hole layout. When the avid golfers showed up to inspect the work, they were well pleased. Even so, they were compelled to ask: “Where did all the bodies go?”

The parks steward simply smiled. The golfers exchanged hesitant looks, shrugged their shoulders, then grabbed their clubs and set out with gusto upon the brand new fairway. Over the next several years, the rest of the tombstones, thousands more, were yanked from the surrounding dunes as the number of links grew. At last, all marks of death were erased from the heights above Lands End.

In 1924, construction of the museum was completed. Today the California Palace of the Legion of Honor crowns the hill above Point Lobos, surrounded by a full and fabulous 18 holes that once was a place of skulls merely. As described in the pages of my local history: “The tasteful renovations of this landscape provide an interesting element in the history of a golf course that was formerly a burial ground. This land has always been a beautiful public asset to be treasured.” While some may quibble over the details, none can deny the local historian’s gift for understatement.

Concluding my business in the museum bookstore, I walk back up the marble stairs and out into the sunlit courtyard of the Legion of Honor. Near the museum gate sits a full-sized cast of Rodin’s most famous sculpture, The Thinker, originally called The Poet. Below him are the unseen dead. Lots of them.

During a 1993 seismic retrofit of the museum, workers made a gruesome discovery: the decayed remains of hundreds of California pioneers, many still wearing vintage Levis. Their return was not welcomed by the museum, which was obliged to cover steep surcharges for construction delays. Archaeologists frantically poked around in the churned up earth to glean what small treasures could be had: rusty watch fobs, broken belt buckles, Indian-head pennies. “I suppose it’s interesting,” remarked one museum official wearily, “but it’s not exactly King Tut’s tomb.” At last, the retrofit was completed, the forsaken corpses reinterred where they were found, and normal activity resumed at the museum. To this day, nothing marks what lies just underfoot.

I make my way across the courtyard toward the museum gate. It opens upon the fairways of a revamped graveyard and the windblown avenues of the Outside Lands. Just this side of the gate, Rodin’s Thinker broods on a poem forever in the offing. Standing in front of him now are that elderly couple from the gallery. Once again they have gotten ahead of me.

The old man holds in his hands a freshly purchased copy of an exhibition catalog titled The Mourners. The book is large format, its weight not inconsiderable. Tenderly, the old man commits the volume to his wife’s hands. The heft is precisely that of memory—almost too much—yet she holds fast as if to prove its worth. She gazes upon the cover image. It’s a familiar figure—the cowled and book-burdened Mourner who wipes away tears without end and for boundless grief can return no gaze.

The old woman dwells on this image. Fragile perplexity caresses her face anew. At last she looks up from the book and into her husband’s eyes. The weight in her hands prevents them from holding each other’s. Finally, in a voice delicate, sweet, and fleeting as an evening cloud, she says, “I still find all this very confusing.”



John P. O’Grady lived in San Francisco for a while. Now he’s back home in the Catskill Mountains.He is the author of Pilgrims to the Wild and Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature. With Lorraine Anderson and Scott Slovic, he co-edited Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture.

Read “Certain Trees” (essay with image gallery) and “The Genius of Kaaterskill Falls” (essay), also by John P. O’Grady and appearing in Terrain.org.

All photos by John P. O’Grady.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.