The story is almost always the same. Every six months or so, I make the trip from Tucson back to my old neighborhood in New York and discover yet another childhood landmark gone. Some landlord or other has forced a beloved store out of business, the rent raised a thousand percent, and the real estate handed over to any one of a number of bland chains—a Starbucks, a Janovic Plaza, an HSBC. Worse yet, the building itself has been torn down, or gutted and renovated into condominiums.
I scurry away the names of these lost sites—The Movie Place, its sawdust floors and ladders reaching up to endless VHS tapes; Meridiana, where the waiters served children a glass of red wine as long as they were accompanied by their parents; La Picola Cucina and its sandwiches drizzled with both olive oil and mayonnaise—but with each disappearance, I feel my home reconstitute itself into something I no longer know. These places once formed the texture of a city; they oriented my life and mindset within it. Their disappearance signals something perhaps obvious to many: a city loved is a city lost. With enough time, I fear, we become strangers to our own lives, as anonymous or forgotten as those old stores, only there as backdrop for what will become the memories of others who now call our home home.
As a result, I’ve become someone who hates to let things go. Friends tell me I linger. On the street, after dinner or a movie, the light changes from red to green to red, pedestrians curl around our small group, and still I babble on, drawing out goodnights to exasperating lengths. In my free time, I seek the places where you never have to say goodbye: I am a frequent, irrepressible wanderer of cemeteries, always hopeful that these may prove the one permanent place in a city. Where better for someone like me than a place filled with what we can’t bear to leave? Who would ever build a bank or condo or coffee franchise on top of the buried dead
When I moved to Tucson a few years ago, I thought things would be different from New York. Here was a dry and dusty sprawl of a city, so slow-moving and sun-scorched that older laws of geology seemed to hold sway. The strip malls were stuck in the 1970s, peppered with the type of bizarre novelty shops long extinguished in New York: ; the Tucson Map and Flag Center; Metaphysics World, a specialty store for “psychics and astrologers.” The IHOPs in their original 1950s A-frames still served pancakes. The city’s unofficial motto rallied residents to “Keep Tucson Shitty.”
But the longer I stayed, the more this stasis proved a mirage. The downtown underwent what was deemed a much-needed development. A trolley service opened, university high rises popped up around it, and the cash-only dive bar downtown, eventually sandwiched between a World of Beer franchise and a gourmet olive oil shop, announced its closing.
Presaging this development, Pima County decided to build its new courthouse in 2004. Its presence would catalyze the downtown’s renovation: at seven stories tall and 258,000 square feet, it would be easily distinguishable from the surrounding warehouses, manufacturing plants, and parking garages. Gone were Coconuts Nightclub, Boyer Motor Co., and Old Pueblo Billiard and Bowling Parlor, longstanding establishments demolished to make way for a monument of progress and justice.
But the suggested location—the confluence of four-way stops where Stone, Alameda, and Toole avenues form a right triangle—remained one of the oldest inhabited sites in the city. Here, traffic lurched its way downtown and the Union Pacific foghorned past every quarter hour on the tracks parallel to Toole, carrying freight for El Paso or L.A., graffiti scrawled across its red and yellow cars. A 1990 Arizona state burial protection law mandated archaeological testing on any site deemed culturally sensitive, and so in 2004 the county hired Statistical Research, Inc., a cultural resources management firm, to examine the area. What SRI found was staggering: the remains of National Cemetery, unmarked and undesignated, containing over 1,300 remains to parse, remove, and repatriate.
In 1864, U.S. government agent J. Ross Browne came to Tucson and sniffed at it: “A city of mud boxes . . . Dingy and dilapidated, cracked and baked into a composite of dust and filth, barren of verdure, parched, naked and grimly desolate in the glare of a southern sun.”
Browne was one of a wave of white settlers to arrive in Tucson at that time. After the Gadsden Purchase made southern Arizona a United States territory in 1854, men and women flocked to the predominantly Mexican outpost, categorizing and dividing the land already inhabited by Native American tribes for over a millennium. Between 1848 and 1880, Tucson’s population shot from 760 to more than seven thousand.
With this increase, certain necessities arose. One was a proper space for the dead. Just before the Civil War, residents began digging graves in a plot of land bordering Stone Avenue; from 1860 to 1881, the roughly two thousand burials formed National Cemetery.
National also wouldn’t have suited J. Ross Browne’s tastes. The Sonoran caliche made digging a maddening task; proper burial custom required only that the body rest deeply enough that its bones were not visible. Adobe walls ran around the cemetery to keep out wild animals and deter inhabitants from abandoning corpses within. Civilian graves were dug inside and outside the walls, edged up against public outhouses and trash heaps. The Arizona Daily Star called National Cemetery “the general dump ground of the city,” a place filled with everything from dead rats to a dead horse, the ground so littered with the half-dug graves that “if a pedestrian happens that way after dark he is likely to fall into one of the numerous pits and get his neck broken.” Charles D. Poston, the state’s first congressman and the so-called Father of Arizona, attended an officer’s funeral at National in 1881 and lamented that it “gave the people a sad opportunity to witness the neglect and desecration which rests upon the mural monuments of the brave dead. Cannot something be done?”
Something was. National’s civilian section closed in 1875 and its military section in 1881, shortly after Poston’s visit. In 1884, a notice ran in the Daily Star that a Dr. W. J. White would exhume the remains and move them to nearby cemeteries. The neighboring real estate had been sold to the railroad and the city anticipated a more profitable use for the land than a graveyard. For those families who could afford it, the dead were transported north to Court Cemetery. For those who couldn’t, the dead stayed put. Like any constituency of voiceless residents, cemetery occupants fell victim to zoning. By 1900 the land became residential, and then, over the next sixty years, businesses took over piece by piece. No external signs of the cemetery remained, though the number of accidental exhumations—the spades that hit bone in service of foundation and latrine—spiked.
No longer in use, National was classified as defunct. The category on first consideration seems puzzling. Does the space of the dead itself die? What happens when that space meant for preservation rubs up against the land marked out for the living?
A late summer’s day in downtown Tucson, just past lunch, and the construction site for the new Pima County Courthouse is hushed. No heavy machinery rumbles, no trucks beep in reverse, the busy yells of workers have ceased.
Alone in the still air, the courthouse appears almost complete. Its seven stories of glass and steel reflect nothing but sky. No evidence remains that here one of the largest mass exhumations in American history took place. One Friday afternoon, I locked my bike a block away and walked along the chain link fence running around the new courthouse. Unlike a cemetery, a construction site does not exactly welcome visitors. Sundt Construction, which won the bidding for the courthouse job, had posted the usual signs along its fence: VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED; NOT HIRING AT THIS JOBSITE; NO TRESPASSING, HARD HAT AREA. A three-foot poster of the model worker was stapled to the fence, each piece of protective gear labeled and explained.
Then I saw another sign: VISITORS MUST CHECK IN AT SUNDT OFFICES. This seemed an implicit invitation—it didn’t specify which type of visitor must check in, only that this obligation awaited if one fancied oneself such. And wasn’t I one? I walked to where the fence’s gates were pulled back, took a look around, and stepped in.
Not ten steps later and I came face to face with a worker, the first I had seen. He was in full compliance with the poster on the fence—orange vest, hard hat, safety glasses, and with Jason stitched across his Dickies shirt. I told him I was looking for the Sundt offices and was hoping to take a tour. He asked why. “I just found out this was a cemetery,” I said, and suddenly afraid that idle interest was not enough, that I must have some personal stake to justify my wandering around, I mentioned that my great-grandfather had been buried here. Did he think it was possible to pay my respects? This was, I hoped, a permissible lie, however unfair to the cemetery’s actual descendants. Either way, it worked. Jason nodded and pointed to a trailer behind me: “Tell them what you told me and I don’t see why not.”
Though National Cemetery’s existence was never entirely forgotten, Tucson largely ignored it. We have an impressive tendency as humans to pretend something isn’t there when it holds no particular interest for us. But it should come as no surprise that a cemetery once sat in the center of the city. “The city of the dead antedates the city of the living. The city of the dead is the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city.” writes Lewis Mumford, the architectural critic. A city’s life depends rather conversely upon the death of its occupants. Metropolis and necropolis are obverse and reverse; a city grows and so too must its bodies. The stores that cycle in and out of my old neighborhood in New York are really reminders that the people in the apartments above live and die as well.
Walling off a space for the dead then becomes a civic function, akin to providing the infrastructure for sewage, electricity, or running water. At the same time, a cemetery is more than just functional: it contains and disposes of the dead, and it provides them a home. A cemetery’s built of the dead, but it’s intended for the living. Visitors—potential inhabitants, after all—both pay for and provide its present sustenance as well as supply its literal future. Think of it as the grandparent who has you by the ear—a cemetery needs an audience to pass along its memories of a city’s past occupants, yet it’s also there to send a message, a basic inevitable truth: a city of the living one day turns into a city of the dead. The graves serve as memento mori with a coda of economic optimism: we all die, but with the proper record-keeping and a bit of endowment, we might not all be forgotten.
I climbed the steps to the Sundt Construction Office, a white plywood trailer slapped up on the vacant lot. A woman looked up from her desk as I opened the door. Nervous, I spat out the story I had concocted on the walk over. “My great-grandfather just up and moved to Tucson,” I told her. “I think he traveled by train to prospect silver. But he died and I was told he was buried here.” The woman cut me off before I could hash out any particulars of his death. “They did all the reburials at Fort Huachuca and All Faiths,” she said, as if she had heard this before. “The most you can do is see where he would have been. But you’ll have to ask Ben first.”
Ben, it turned out, had just walked in behind me. The site foreman, he looked like the kind of man whose curfew you wouldn’t want to break when taking his daughter to prom—his face more saddle than skin, his buzz cut an extension of his chin’s stubble. I followed Ben into the office and he stood behind his desk. “So you want a tour? Can’t do it, buddy. You need the proper equipment.” He pointed down to my canvas shoes and up at my bare head. “Steel-toed boots, safety glasses, a hard hat. It’s a safety code thing. Walking around, you never know what can fall on you.”
I nodded and said I understood, that I had some steel-toed boots but they were a three-mile bike ride away. Still, I lingered and Ben didn’t kick me out, so I took this as another invitation. I worked my way through a revision of my story—how my great-grandfather abandoned my great-grandmother on the East Coast and wound up in Tucson only to die shortly thereafter, how I had never known this until my aunt mentioned it the other day, and how this was the last shred of him I had left.
Ben sat down, took off his hard hat, and ran his thumb and forefinger along his forehead. “Was he military?” he asked.
I paused, considering whether this was ever in the cards for a family member of mine. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“And this was your great-grandfather?” Ben let that hang in the air. I don’t look like someone whose great-grandfather had been born in 1900 at the latest.
“Well, great-great really. It’s just easier to say great and mean great-great.”
Ben nodded and opened a file on his desktop. He traced his finger along an aerial photograph of the construction site, outlining the perimeter where National Cemetery once lay and the three construction sections it had become—courthouse, parking garage, front lot—each with a swath of overturned land next to it like a smudged finger painting. Then he pointed to the roof of a brown building in the southwest corner. “There are still bodies underneath there. That’s the only part that wasn’t excavated.” He stopped and thought for a second. “I’ll have to show you round myself, seeing as you don’t have the right gear. Just keep your sunglasses on and grab those.” He pointed to a bin full of hard hats and orange safety vests, the proper equipment that had been sitting behind me the entire time.
It turns out a defunct cemetery is a fairly common occurrence. A state of rest has its transitions as does any other. If graves are houses of the dead, then they too must submit to the practical—the mortgages, payments, and installments needed to retain a desired, inhabitable space.
In Tucson, there was the smattering of prehistoric two-thousand-year-old burials at the base of Sentinel Peak, the saguaro-strung hill just west of the interstate emblazoned with the University of Arizona’s red, white, and blue ‘A’. And there was Presidio San Agustin, built by Mexican settlers in 1776, where more than a thousand bodies still remain downtown, and where each November thousands of costumed gatherers parade along Alameda Street to celebrate All Souls Procession, Tucson’s version of the Day of the Dead. On All Souls, the city turns upside-down and the living transform into the dead until, like Calvino’s Eusapia, one does not know which is directing which—people build floats with giant skeletons and scythes, creep down darkened streets on stilts, paint skulls on their faces, and carry pictures of dead family members. A crowd of strangers come together in embodiment of what they’ve lost, marching unaware over the San Agustin cemetery underneath.
Then there was Court Cemetery, the graveyard that replaced National’s civilian portion in 1875, a half-mile north of the railroad tracks. It’s a cemetery described in an 1877 Arizona Weekly Citizen editorial as a “drear, bleak, desolate place,” where it would be “cruelty in the highest degree to compel parents, kindred and friends to entomb and take final leave of their dear departed ones.” Though the cemetery closed in 1909 and homes sprouted over it by 1915, up to six thousand bodies still remain unmarked and underground in the residential neighborhood of Dunbar/Spring. In Dunbar, a post hole for a mailbox strikes a grave; excavation for a sewer line yields two coffins stacked one on top of another; an eleven-foot-long, half-foot-wide crack appears in the earth after a rainstorm and when the earth falls apart, it opens up two more graves layered on top of each other like bunk beds. It’s a neighborhood where the dead bleed into the living and the once defunct spring improbably back to life.
As Ben and I walked around to the dirt lot in back, he told me that the genealogy bug had bitten him as well. He Googled his last name a few years ago to discover that his ancestors came from Chihuahua, Mexico. “My own great-grandpa,” he said with some pride, “was a Jesuit priest. He traveled up to Sonora, met a native woman, and that was it.” He winked. “No more priesthood.” Ben searched his great-grandfather’s name and found a match in Hermosillo, Mexico. “My great-grandfather’s brother’s great-grandson.” He tried to puzzle out the connection. “Now let’s see, what does that make us?” He paused. “Cousins, I guess,” he laughed. “It gets tricky, you know?”
I nodded in commiseration and told him, truthfully this time, that on my father’s side of the family in Brazil, my uncle had recently exhumed my grandfather and had him cremated after more than half a century in a cemetery in Petropolis, a small mountain city an hour’s ride from Rio de Janeiro. My uncle sprinkled my grandfather’s ashes alongside my grandmother’s at the sitio, the house my grandparents built in the 1950s and where my father and his siblings were raised. My uncle did this not just to reunite both his parents’ ashes on the same land but also to receive a healthy sum from selling the burial plot.
What I told Ben, however, wasn’t as simple as all that. My uncle had exhumed his father and scattered his ashes a year or so after what was left of our family buried handfuls of my grandmother’s ashes at the sitio, a little at a time, each in a particular spot she loved: beneath the birds of paradise by the pool, by the Adirondack chair my father had brought down from New York to assemble before he died, along the bed of roses by the wraparound porch, at the base of the jaboticaba trees down the drive.
But my uncle also wanted to save the sitio and so he bought the place, using most of the inheritance he received from his mother after fifty-nine impatient years of waiting. His plan was admirable: if he preserved the land, he would preserve the memory of those people who also loved the sitio but who could no longer care for it—his parents and my father. Like my uncle, I too regarded the sitio as a magical place—growing up, I would make the twelve-hour flight down to Rio with my parents, spend a few days in the city’s swelter, and then climb the winding route through the mountains and jungle until we entered what seemed another, more vertiginous world—bromelias and cachoeiras sprung from cliffs, clouds curling over mountains to bring sudden thunder, a breeze that, at the right time of night, could rustle your bones. Like my uncle, I too daydreamed that, when I grew older, I would end up there as well.
Yet my uncle was also in equal measure a fool. Soon after he bought the sitio, he lost it and everything that came with it. He lost the garden, the birds of paradise, the greenhouse, the hummingbirds. He lost the dirt soccer field out back where my grandfather used to practice his shotput. He lost the orange and lime trees, the bitter fruit growing on the bark of the jaboticabas, the dark marble berries to be turned into jam. He lost the dead wasps scumming the surface of the pool and the spider webs stretched taut across the back walkway, stronger than fishing line. And I lost the back ridge where my father fell thirty years ago and broke his ankle. I lost the dusted-over ping pong table and the television where our family watched Baggio skim one over the net in ’94. I lost Maria Comprida, the mountain my grandmother would gaze up at every time she sat in the Adirondack chair my father positioned for her, the mountain whose outline I tattooed onto my forearm so that I may never lose it again.
What saddens me most is not that I had allowed myself to believe one of my uncle’s long drawn-out flights of fancy, but that there’ll come a moment when whoever buys the place stops at the foot of the jaboticabas and notices the overturned dirt, appearing as a darker stain than the rest of the deeply watered and lushly green earth. There’ll come a moment when the impostor (for who else could this person be who bought the house my grandparents built?) digs through the dirt and rock, and then through my grandmother’s and grandfather’s commingled ashes, some volcanic and fine, some coarser and chipped. There’ll come a moment when the new owner, planning some grander landscaping ambition, prepares to yank everything out by its roots but first sifts through the earth, letting his fingers run through it to wonder, if only for a moment, what ghosts might now be strangers in their own home.
Ben and I walked behind the courthouse and stood at the edge of a pit, mounds of bulldozed earth piled around us. A worker, a lanky older white man, walked past us carrying two buckets of dirt, his shoulders sagging under the weight.
A crane sat idly on the far side of the hole and beyond that ran Sixth Avenue’s traffic. This would be the courthouse’s parking garage, the only structure left to build. “We’re standing where they uncovered most of the bodies,” Ben said. “So chances are your great-grandpa was buried here.” I nodded solemnly and peeked over the edge.
Ben said he had heard stories from the excavation team about the bones they found: a mother holding a baby on either side of her; a skeleton with bullet holes in the rib cage and sternum. “It’s quite a structure,” Ben said, looking up at the courthouse. “You know why they had to exhume here? The foundation’s twenty feet deep, deeper than any other building built here before. We’ d have poured concrete onto all these bodies.”
Ben turned back to the pit. I wanted to ask him what he thought about working here, whether he felt unsettled or found the site uncanny, whether he too supposed himself a transgressor. Someone had decided, after all, to bring in a priest to bless the site before construction began.
For if graves provide a second home of the dead, it’s a home we very much don’t want them to leave. Look at the beginnings of any burial practice and you will see the steps taken by the living to stop the dead from returning. The heavy stones and menhirs first used in western Europe don’t just mark a burial place, they physically keep the dead from rising. The bodies of enemies in Ancient Greece were mutilated both to dishonor them and to prevent the vanquished from seeking revenge upon the victor. In France up until the late eighteenth century, bodies suspected for any reason of being likely to come back to life were disinterred and decapitated. To prevent the dead’s resurrection, people have eaten them, burned them, carried their ashes in small pouches around their necks. They have rubbed out the dead’s footprints so they could not find their way home, blindfolded corpses and led them out from their houses to the graveyards by unfamiliar routes. They have sealed up the dead body’s orifices to keep the soul from leaving. Corpses have been tied down, their bones broken, barriers of fire lit between grave and town. Families have urinated along the doorways of their houses so that if a ghost were to enter, he would drink the urine, spit it out, and leave. People have danced on graves to crush the body underneath; even the Dance of Death, that Middle Ages allegory on the universality of mortality, was meant to tamp down the earth so the dead couldn’t seep out.
We miss the dead, we mourn them, we dress in their visage and try many means to preserve their memory—but is all this done because we want to bring them back to life or because, in some sense, we want to keep them dead? To remember someone is not the same, after all, as wishing for that someone’s return. Perhaps a grave is just a means of assuaging guilt, a way of fooling us into thinking we can hold onto a place or person, so that when the neighborhood sewer line is struck or the courthouse built or a house’s new occupants decide to do some light work around the yard, the earth does not open upon our ancestors only for us to hear of the wrongs we’ve done and the ways in which we’ve left them abandoned.
Before Ben and I walked back, he pointed across the lot to the building from the bird’s-eye photograph. “That’s where they didn’t dig. Check it out when you leave. There are bodies still buried there. Just slip in the alleyway up Stone.”
When the tour was over, I handed the hard hat and vest to Ben, said goodbye, and made my way down Stone Avenue, disappearing again into the emptiness of the street and the slow, comfortable rhythm of traffic. When I reached the L-shaped alleyway he had pointed out, I ducked in. The whole expanse lay in front of me: the pit that would become a parking garage, the seven stories of glass and steel that outlined a courthouse, and beyond that the city, dropping and lengthening until it reached the Catalina mountains, distant but sharply etched. I could see why settlers first built here. It was beautiful. Contrails shoelaced across the sky to the west; a monsoon brooded in the east. Find the right spot in Tucson and the sky is so open it’s as if you gaze through a camera obscura: only some manipulation of nature could yield up such a view. From the site, a hammer knocked a calm and repeated ring. The same lanky man emerged from behind a dirt mound carrying the same two buckets. The freight train would pass behind Toole again in a minute.
I turned around to face the building. It was the squat, brown school superintendent’s office. In the alleyway, a line of violet spray paint ran around the building’s perimeter, perforated like a cut-here diagram. Someone had sprayed SRI Excavation on the outside of this line and then several arrows pointing out toward the courthouse. Here was the border, the dividing line between repatriation and remains. On one side lay the excavation and soon-to-be courthouse, and on the other lay the bodies never exhumed, the remains never identified. Beyond them began the rest of the city, Alameda Street and the old city courthouse and the traffic idling at stop signs in a city harboring untold reminders beneath my feet that we never end up where we think we will.
A year after I visited National Cemetery, I met John Hall. Doughy, invariably friendly, and dressed in baggy, waterproof clothes as if he just returned from the field, he waited for me in his office down and around a long corridor of SRI’s headquarters in East Tucson. After a chain of intermediaries and months of over-the-phone stonewalling from the SRI secretary, I had found him, John Hall, the lead field archaeologist for the excavation at National. His office had no windows. A map of the excavation site, each burial a slightly pinched rectangle, was tacked to his wall.
“I’m always happy to reminisce,” John said, swiveling his chair between me and his desktop, on which he pulled up photos from the excavation. “This was probably the biggest project I’ll ever have in my life.”
SRI’s excavation was a massive, painstaking, year-and-a-half-long undertaking. In order to find a grave, a backhoe stripped away foundation and overburden—the layer of rock and soil overlying the cemetery, earth that impeded the archaeologists’ search—and then sifted through the dirt to parse out any bones. John and a team of seventy parsed the dry, stubborn caliche to catch sight of the overturned dirt and decomposed wood that indicated grave and coffin. To reach the densest part of the cemetery, they dug through sewers and building foundations, cut gas lines and water pipes, and had to scatter burials. Upon finding remains, SRI took cranial measurements to determine each skeleton’s ancestry. They collected what artifacts remained in the graves—rosary beads, crosses, buttons made of metal, wood, and shell—and recorded each burial’s position so that its arrangement could be re-created upon reburial.
Yet, for all that, SRI couldn’t determine who was who. “The county hired us to clear the site,” John shrugged, “and so that’s what we did.” In the process, they had to sacrifice steps such as DNA testing that they otherwise would have taken. Although Tucson’s Catholic diocese kept records of the buried, it didn’t record who was buried where, so only a few remains could be identified. These rare successes depended on the right confluence of events—two skeletons with bullet wounds in their chests, for example, were only identified when a slog through Tucson’s 1870s crime headlines turned up an obituary for a shopkeeper and his wife shot to death in the armed robbery of their store.
The most telling material was found in what else the excavation exposed—centuries old trash; a prehistoric pit house with a streetlight’s foundation running through the middle of it; a dog’s skeleton buried underneath a house’s foundation. Privies and outhouses proved especially rich. John and his team dug shafts twenty feet deep, and at the bottom they would chance upon a perfectly preserved newspaper or a grocery receipt reading pigs, flour, bacon grease.
“It was like a tapestry,” John said.
In retrospect, this seemed a funny way to characterize the process. Comparing the layers of a city to an intricate weave of textiles meant to create a larger, more complex representation of a scene is fairly intuitive, and it makes sense to juxtapose the skill and care needed to excavate so rich an archaeological site as National with the artistic craft and precision necessary to fashion a tapestry. But what’s most interesting in the phrase is that a tapestry is primarily ornamental: it’s a wall hanging, a furniture covering, something to look at. Does the same then hold true for National? A cemetery memorializes and archaeology studies the dead, but while both honor their subject, they value it in different, contradictory forms. The question of how to properly handle the dead—who, despite all those who claim to speak for them, stay voiceless in the matter—remains unanswerable.
When SRI excavated the cemetery, they consulted with both the Tohono O’odham nation and Los Descendientes, the heritage groups that claimed cultural affinity with the cemetery’s inhabitants. Los Descendientes approved of the plan for exhumation—they wanted to know everything they possibly could about their ancestors and considered the current burial state unsuitable; any information whatsoever was of value and members would often visit John Hall at the site, asking him about what had been found. The Tohono O’odham nation resisted that idea and didn’t want the burial site disturbed at all: what happened at National Cemetery, to them, was sacrilege. As I lingered in his office, John said he’ d be happy to talk again. “I always love to reminisce,” he repeated and I nodded in agreement. Yet here too was paradox: John reminisced not about the cemetery, but about its removal. Though he recovered a very human sense of who the dead were, he did so at cost of the sanctity of their graves. A past life, John seemed to argue, could only be reclaimed when you broke through the repository meant to hold it and then you emerged, shit-stained but victorious, with a grocery list for pigs, flour, and bacon grease.
Once the excavation was complete, there remained the problem of what to do with the bodies. From May 2009 till June 2010, Pima County exhumed, transported, and reburied individual remains. Civilians went to All Faiths Cemetery, military to Fort Huachuca, and the thirty-six Native American remains to the Tohono O’odham nation. Each cemetery held its own rededication ceremony. More than two thousand people attended the military reburial on Armed Forces Day. Governor Jan Brewer gave a speech; Gabby Giffords, district congresswoman at the time, rode her motorcycle there.
The designated name for this process was repatriation—a sending back to “one’s own country.” But the term raises troubling questions: what constitutes one’s own country and who decides those borders? The exhumation was spun so that these bodies were now returning to their “true home,” as if the same thing hadn’t been said about those early Tucsonans when they were buried in their first final resting place. Add to this the irony that these remains were upended by a courthouse—a structure that, at least in the great state of Arizona and its anti-immigration S.B. 1070 law, symbolizes a legal system used to unfairly target and deny the citizenship of many of those remains’ descendants—and repatriation starts to take on a more ominous ring. If the exhumation at National Cemetery reclaimed a sense of culture and heritage that had been lost, it also asserted possession of the land. Just as I claimed a long-lost nonexistent ancestor, Pima County claimed to honor a forgotten cultural lineage to gain access to a desired site.
By 1900, fourteen middle-class residences were built on the spot where Ben and I had stood. Unlike National’s occupants, those who lived there are known today: George Whomes, dentist, and his wife Adah; John Brown, a rancher, and his wife Dolores; George Cheyney, the postmaster, and his wife Anne. Though National Cemetery represented one of the most diverse ever exhumed in the U.S., there were now only three non-Anglo-American residents on that land. They were Nicolasa Antonio, the Native American servant of George and Anne Cheyney; Matilda Sturis, the Mexican servant of George and Adah Whomes; and Clara Antonio, whom the records sometimes state as Mexican, sometimes as Native American, but always the servant of Phillip and Elizabeth Brennan.
Before John Brown died in 1914, he had a fear much the same as my own about the sitio: that the paving of Stone Avenue would destroy the beloved mulberry trees he had planted in back of his house. Old John Brown made no mention of what his house might have paved over in its stead, or what the mulberry trees might themselves have uprooted.
We don’t know this for certain, but I’m willing to bet that when it came to his mulberry trees, John Brown wasn’t thinking of Dora Scribner Miller, a woman who arrived in Tucson in 1885 at the age of six, and who, when asked by the Tucson Citizen in 1953 if she remembered National Cemetery, delivered an account in opposition to every other newspaper’s report: “Why, that place was an old cemetery when we first came to Tucson. It was one of the first things we saw when we got off the train—lots of mesquite and catclaw with little paths through the trees to the graves. There were always candles burning and day or night you could see someone there saying a rosary.”
This, I think, is what really got to me about National Cemetery’s exhumation: that we can match the names and locations of the people above, but not those who lived below. The cemetery Dora Scribner Miller remembered ended up a forgotten space—not obverse and reverse, not a city of the dead and city of the living, but just one more stratum of history in the underground cross section, another archaeological feature alongside the utility lines and gas mains and water pipes and cement foundations, the overburden you dig through to get to what you really want. I had hoped a cemetery would prove more special, that it could carry ghosts. But a grave may very well prove less illuminating than a privy and the newspaper used to wipe someone’s nineteenth-century ass.
What bothered me about National is what ultimately bothers me about all cemeteries. I arrive at each new one hoping to find permanence, only to discover that, within their promise of preservation, lies the hint that they allow us, in some sense, to forget. I hate saying goodbye. But this isn’t so much the pain of parting as it is the fear of forgetting. To deal with grief, to survive what would otherwise be too sharp-edged, we allow a dullness to take root. By staking memory to a place, we absolve ourselves its full weight; the bookmark replaces the finger that might have been kept on the page. I try my best to remember—I walk down Alameda Street on a warm November night with a skull painted on my face and my father’s photo in hand; I daydream about the table at Meridiana where I am once again fifteen years old and, in between the calamari and the salmone al affumiciatto, he orders me a glass of red wine. Still I know there remains an eagerness for oblivion within the memorials I create, a desire to wash everything over like the mountains in the distance. A city buries its dead just so it can keep on living. Whether exhumed or not, a grave doesn’t maintain what’s been lost so much as it silently admits the ghost is never really coming back.