“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” begins with the narrator’s reluctant visit to a dying friend but evolves into an elegy for the terminally ill woman and a confession of the narrator’s own fear of dying.
Fear of Death
Readers never know exactly what illness the sick friend dies of or precisely what her symptoms are; therefore, the major focus of the story is on the women’s verbal, behavioral, and psychological responses in confronting their own mortality. The one is dying, the other (the narrator) is observing both her friend’s behavior and her own reactions to the phenomenon of death.
The dying woman engages in trivial conversation and ghoulish jokes in dealing with her situation. For example, she loops a phone cord around her neck and exclaims “end o’ the line.” She also wants something specific from the visiting friend when she has a second bed placed in the room. The expectation of spending the night with her dying friend “hit me like an open coffin…. She wants my life.”
Conscious of her situation, the dying woman mentions Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of accepting death. She wants to know why Kubler-Ross left out Resurrection; “God knows, I want to do it by the book,” she says. The narrator, however, remains silent, in the denial stage herself, even though she knows the other stages; she cannot bring herself to speak to her friend directly about death.
Kubler-Ross found that many dying patients are comforted if someone sits and listens to their openly expressed fears and thoughts. She also observed that many dying patients, after the shock of learning their condition, go through five psychological stages: denial, anger, bargaining, grieving, and acceptance. Patients may be assisted in reaching acceptance by the hospital staffs and family’s openly talking about death when the patient so desires. In the denial stage, the patient refuses to recognize reality and acts as if the disease does not exist. The patient may then become angry, resenting others who enjoy good health and blaming doctors and relatives for their inability to help. In the bargaining stage the patient tries to “buy time,” often in the form of prayers asking for “one more year,” in return for being a better person. This psychological stage, which is usually brief, is followed by the first true recognition of reality, and the patient then enters the stage of grief or depression, mourning the loss of his or her own life. In the final stage of acceptance, the patient may still be fearful and angry but is now prepared to die with peace and dignity. This story appears to chart this process both in the dying woman and in her friend who fears death but appears to accept her fear by the end of the story when she relates the sad ending of the chimpanzee’s story.
“In the Cemetery” explores the theme of friendship by showing the strain the terminal illness has placed on the women’s relationship. The narrator feels guilty when introduced as the generic “Best Friend,” a label that indicates the withering of their closeness. “So how come, I’ll bet they’re wondering, it took me so long to get to such a glamorous place?… Two months, and how long is the drive?” the narrator asks herself, realizing that her absence is a betrayal of their friendship. The implication is that the fearful narrator took too long coming to the side of her dying friend and, once there, will not stay until the end. In its final form, the story also alludes to the friendship between Amy Hempel and the now deceased Jessica Wolfson, whom Hempel promised to write a story about and to whom the story is dedicated.
Language and Meaning
Inappropriate language is often a symptom of denial. During a time of extreme sadness or danger, people will often tell jokes and talk about trivial things. The dying friend insists on such a dialogue immediately, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she says, in acknowledgment that she will not be around long enough to have to remember anything meaningful. At the end of the story, the narrator’s language similarly indicates her denial of her friend’s death. Her friend is simply “moved to the cemetery,” as if she had simply changed apartments or moved across town. The only fear that she admits to having is a fear of flying. However, her fear of death permeates her actions and thoughts while with her friend. She thinks of a story told to her by a friend who used to work in a mortuary. A man in a car accident was scared to death by the sight of his injured arm. Even though the tale does not pertain directly to her dying friend, it symbolizes how obsessed with death the narrator is.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Amy Hempel, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.