This unnamed woman is the friend whom the narrator visits in the hospital. Her request to the narrator to “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” sets the story in motion. The woman was the narrator’s best friend, but her feeling of betrayal is revealed when she introduces the narrator to her nurse as “the Best Friend.” The woman is making a concerted effort to deal with her mortality, illustrated by her attempt to engage her friend in a conversation about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory of the psychology of death. Like the narrator, she also uses ironic humor to help defuse the tension of their meeting, like when she wraps a telephone cord around her neck and proclaims it “the end o’ the line.” However, when her wish that her friend spend the night is rebuffed, the woman is so overwhelmed by the act of abandonment that she tears off her protective face mask and stumbles out of the room. Though the main thrust of the story is the narrator’s fear of death, this action—an immense strain on the woman’s frail and sickly body underscores her own psychological pain. Nevertheless, like the earthquake the two roommates hoped to forestall but were unable to prevent, the woman is eventually “moved to the cemetery,” a euphemistic way of saying that she has died.
The main character in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is the unnamed narrator who relates the story in first person. While paying a long overdue visit to a dying friend in the hospital, the narrator muses about her shame and guilt in neglecting a friend in need. Though the narrator seems aware of her fear of death, her fear prevents her from discussing the topic openly. Instead, she seems fixated on grotesque images, like earthquakes and a man who dies of fright after seeing his mutilated arm. Alternately, the narrator uses humor as a form of denial, like when she reads an item from the newspaper about a man who robs a bank with a chicken. Her fears culminate when she realizes her friend wants her to spend the night, it hits her “like an open coffin.. . . She wants my life.” Even after her friend dies, she refuses to confront the situation. She says only that her friend “was moved to the cemetery.” In her attempt to confront her fear, she enrolls in a “fear of flying” class, admitting, in part, that she is a fearful person, but still refusing to confront death. The narrator, in her honesty, admits her superficiality by saying that she remembers “only the useless things I hear…. Nothing else seeps through.” By the end of the story, however, the narrator returns to the story about a chimpanzee who uses sign language in an attempt to communicate with her dead child. In stating that the animal had become “fluent now in the language of grief,” the narrator has confronted a topic that had previously upset her, thereby showing the character’s growth. By telling her story anonymously, the narrator is able to relate details that she might otherwise hesitate to reveal. The story is both a confession and a way for her to come to terms with her fear of dying, and the narrator’s anonymity allows the reader to identify with her process of catharsis.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.