Different cultures use music as a platform by which to carry people through ceremonial events. Weddings, birthdays, baptisms, burials — music is a common denominator in marking these life transitions. While large choirs, pipe organs and symphonic orchestras can make loud knocks against death’s door, sometimes it’s a simple song that’s able to bring the living quietly through to the world of the dead. Although those who are living may have their favorites, it’s unclear exactly what refrains are preferred by the dead.
It was an early and quiet desert evening, one of those where any sensory input contrasted sharply against the backdrop of the earth’s moving shadow and emerging silence. I was afoot, waiting for a story to find me, walking along a dirt road that ran along the edge of a small border town. A flash of bright color ahead of me caught my eye and was so shockingly loud in the subdued light that the colors screamed from the distance for my immediate attention. As I got closer I saw that the colors were actually the bodies of plastic flowers that had been suspended from a fence, a fence that was protecting the dead from the living.
The flowers pretended to grow as they followed a path into the graveyard. I touched one of the never alive and never dead pedals and thought of how the colors hanging from heart level were for the living and the ones that were stuck in the ground were for those who lay underneath it. They seemed to be at peace and never thirsty there in that land of no water.
I followed the unbraiding flower trail down through the neat rows of graves that lay ahead of me. The scarcity of polished marble and granite spoke of the modest means of those who had brought their dead there to rest and to wait. As I walked, I read the writing on the rows of the rough hewn stones that displayed the well-executed hopes of remembering and promises of forever.
Toward the back of the cemetery I found a small patch of concrete about the size of a door mat. Letters that had been born with a stick had set up in the mud, expressing the writer’s love for a 29 year old named Tio Carlos — Uncle Charlie. The concrete Spanish words said that they would try but fail to last as long as a young girl’s sorrow.
Sad, I thought, that the last adios to this young man had been a coffee can burial by a niece who was too young to even know life, let alone death. I wondered if there had been a velario, a devotional lighting of candles at the four corners of his body, or if the days following his death had been marked only by the silent mourning of this child. It was a safe guess that Carlos probably hadn’t had much of a big send off.
As I was thinking about the day this young man had been laid underneath the place where I was standing, I heard the sound of a Mexican push button accordion. Turning to face the music, I felt the tune riding the evening breeze through a large Arizona Pine tree that screened the graveyard from the porch of a small house. I listened as fingers laughed in and out of a dance tempo that ran beneath a lively ranchera tune — a style of music that is closely tied to what we would call true country. This is the music of the people who work the many lands of Mexico and is the sound of light, of darkness, of pain and of laughter. At that moment, as I stood there with death, it was the sound of life.
Slowly, so as not to shatter the fragile moment, I approached the tree and peeked through a small opening in the branches. I saw a dog lying on a porch and, to his right, I could see one small wooden chair and a pair of men’s boots tapping in time to the music. I listened as the accordion played and the dog slept in heavenly peace.
Sitting on Carlos’s ground, my back to the tree and my ears to the music, I watched the dying western Arizona sky turning from red to grey until the song became silence and all became still. Standing up, I followed the plastic flowers back toward the path of the living, still hearing the melody that an unseen man had gifted to me. I thought about the faces of death, of life, and the song that had somehow fit between them — the song that may or may not have done much for old Carlos but had sure done wonders for me.
By Dave Munsick