Immortality and the Written Word

In Guatemala City, there is a large cemetery, which covers several acres. It is perched at the edge of one of the city’s many deep ravines, above the slums and the garbage dump. Ravens circle overhead; families bring flowers; stray dogs stand guard over the broken windows of dusty mausoleums. Walking between the high walls of stacked tombs for the poor and the gigantic monuments erected by the nation’s five powerful families, I was struck by a thought — we all end up here. I will some day be dead and so will you, dear reader.

To quote the philosopher Cornel West, we are all destined to be the food of terrestrial worms. So, you can’t help but wonder about what kind of legacy we leave behind. In the above-ground graves of the cemetery in Guatemala City, everyone is crowded in, trying to live on in death. The poor have small cubicles for their remains; concrete boxes costing families an exorbitant 200 quetzales a year to maintain. The wealthy build elaborate monuments to themselves, modeled after the tombs of the ancient pharaohs.

Stone erodes and monuments crumble, but stories stand the test of the time.

Now, I’m a young man and I intend to live for a very long time, but I’m under no illusions that this existence lasts forever. Religious and metaphysical takes on an afterlife aside, I am consigned to the fact that my body will eventually break down and die. That terrifies me, just as I’m sure it terrified many of those who now lie interred in that cemetery.

Most of us at one point or another dream of immortality. We’re obsessed with cheating death. Gilgamesh devoted his life to prolonging the inevitable and the emperor Qin Shi Huang was ultimately killed by his need to live forever — poisoned by an elixir that promised him eternal life.

I, too, want to leave behind a legacy. Not in money or in stone, but in stories. Many of my favorite authors are long dead — Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at the age of 61 and Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis at 28 — but when I read The Capitol of the World or The Open Boat, I feel like I’m chatting with old friends over tea. I can’t believe they’re not really there, because their words are still so alive.

Words are to us what pyramids were for the ancient Egyptians or the altars the Maya built to commemorate their dead before European colonization. Stone erodes and monuments crumble, but stories stand the test of the time. The right words possess the magical ability to reach a reader from the grave decades or centuries after its author is gone.

To cause an emotional reaction in a person who hasn’t even been born yet — that’s a legacy.

That’s permanence.

That’s immortality.

— 30 —

Jonny Eberle is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer who recently returned from a weeklong adventure in the beautiful Central American country of Guatemala. You can read more of his travel writing here, or subscribe to his mailing list for monthly updates and reading recommendations.

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