Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is told in the first-person point of view by an unidentified female narrator. At times the voice telling this story seems to move into a narrative technique known as stream-of consciousness—the literary attempt to reproduce the pattern of a mind in unchecked thought, simultaneously moving in multiple levels of awareness, issuing an uninterrupted flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections. This is shown in part by her questions to herself, like “Two months, and how long is the drive.”
Symbolic in the story’s Southern California setting is the idea that the narrator’s situation is merely a play or a television show in which she is acting. The hospital, which is near Hollywood, is likened to the one on the television series “Marcus Welby, MD,” and a camera guards the sick woman’s room. Conscious that she is being filmed, the narrator states “I had my audience,” in further recognition of the metaphor. Her tales about insignificant things take on the aura of a performance. “Off camera,” she says, further painting a portrait of California, “there is a beach across the street.”
Black humor is comedy of a situational or conversational nature that concentrates on morose themes. In a black comedy, an author will frequently make fun of things of a serious nature, such as illness, death, or disease. In this story, the narrator uses black humor in an effort to ease her fear of death. And the sick woman, ironically, uses it to put her friend at ease, too, like when she wraps the phone cord around her neck or exclaims, “Oh, you’re killing me.” A further irony in the story is the metaphor of the hospital as a television set, a place for actors. The narrator and her friend assume the role of actors, yet their situation is real.
A parable is a story that teaches a lesson. Within “In the Cemetery” is the story about the chimpanzee who learns sign language. In the parable, the mother chimp lies twice when asked “who did it on the desk.” This conscious misdirection of language parallels the pattern of distortion found in the trivial dialogue exchanged by the two women. They refuse to confront death, and in effect their idle conversation is a form of “lie” in which they are protecting themselves from pain. At the end of the story, the narrator relates that the chimpanzee’s signed request to her dead child is “Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug.” The chimp has become “fluent now in the language of grief.” By relating this parable, the narrator has also learned to examine her grief, rather than ignore it.
The process of writing this story and dedicating it to her deceased friend can be said to be a catharsis for the author. In writing about “the thing which you will never live down,” Hempel has confronted her feelings of guilt and abandonment at a time when her friend needed her most. The process of expressing such pent-up feelings is known as “catharsis,” and is often done to relieve the teller of carrying such a psychological burden.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Amy Hempel, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.