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.

As Cornel West likes to say, were 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 queztales a year to maintain. The wealthy build elaborate monuments to themselves, modeled after the tombs of the pharaohs.

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.

But 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. My favorite authors are long dead — Hemingway committed suicide at the age of 61 and 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 altars to the Maya that ruled Central America before the unfortunate arrival of the savage Europeans. They are what stands the test of the ages. The perfect phrase has the magical ability to reach a reader from the grave decades or centuries after its author has composted. To cause an emotional reaction in a person who hasn’t even been born yet — that’s power. That’s permanence. That’s immortality.

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When I’m not pondering deep philosophical questions (and sometimes when I am), I’m generally tweeting. If you’d like to know what I’m thinking in 140 characters or less, pop on over to @jonnyeberle and follow along. It could be fun.

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