The Fiumei Street Graveyard
Since the beginning of April, I’ve been running in the cemetery in my neighborhood, almost every day. In uncertain times, when everything is like an illusion, when the only fact is the inevitability of an epidemic, I thought, commitment could be a good idea. The Fiumei Street Graveyard, located in the 8th district of Budapest, was built in the middle of the 19th century as the public cemetery of Pest. At that time, one could reach this peripheral area through vineyards and bushy paths. Today, this neighborhood forms a vivid border between the inner city and the outskirts. This is where my favourite places in Budapest are concentrated, where poverty is wealth, love is relative with sorrow, and life is like the carefree rope dance of a drunken man over the abyss. The cemetery is considered “the pantheon of the nation,” the most prestigious place of burial in Hungary. Nevertheless, it is interesting to mention that among famous artists and politicians, rests here Károly Kertbeny, the Hungarian inventor of the word “homosexuality,” and it was this cemetery where the bones of communist leader János Kádár got stolen from in 2007 by unknown offenders.
The perimeter of the cemetery is ca. 4 km. About 300 meters to the right of the main entrance, near the tomb of Kádár, is the Mausoleum of the Workers’ Movement, built in 1957, which due to its size immediately demands attention. I start running in this direction, and at the one-third of the circle, beyond the stone wall rising on the south side of the graveyard, stands alone a blackened ruin house. Its lifeless roof structure, devoid of tiles, resembles a skeleton. The desolate building on Salgótarjáni Street once functioned as the material testing institute of the Józsefváros Railway Station. The station, which mostly hosted freight traffic, was built with big ambitions in the 1880s, promising the rehabilitation of its messy surroundings that eventually never happened. Yet the best known and also the saddest fact about it is that in 1944 the trains departed from here to Auschwitz. The station closed permanently in 2005, handing over the place first to the Chinese Market and then to a Holocaust museum, whose fate has been unclear since its construction. Today, homeless people inhabit the deserted, overgrown buildings, light fire in the yard, and sing in a trance. The perpetrator of a nearby murder was also found here, recently.
Soon I reach the opposite side from the entrance; I see amber-covered graves, angel statues fallen from their base, hundred-year-old plane trees, maples, and white-flowered palm lilies. With the memory of the skeleton building in my head, I often break the circle here and start improvising on labyrinthine paths. I find it liberating in a way when the run loses purpose, gradually turning into confusion. This productive form of movement, that comes about as the interplay of nearly every muscle, that other times we train ourselves or escape with, becomes mere automatism. A waste of energy, a repetitive exercise, a useless circulation on the edge of a fantastic abyss, for the body to be eventually immersed in the irrationality of endorphin-induced ecstasy. After all, the height set as a goal is always followed by a fall.
There is a reason why the ruins and the tombs entice me into their company every day; it is the strange silence they exude. They cover the ground with peace, under which, over time, the bones become dust. The cemetery does not create the illusion that we have to plan, succeed, and survive. It is rather a landscape that is neither living nor dead, gently reminding us that every step we take leads to the chasm of nothingness. If this void seems scary at first, we should listen better to the roar of silence, and all that used to be the backdrop will come alive. An uncontrollable confusion erupts from behind the nonsense of reason and the dysfunctionality of the things that belong to functional life. It is this magical chaos, that makes the futility of intellect, productivity, and purpose truly apparent. This realm of decaying corpses and cold bones, surrounded by worn-out stone walls, liberates you from the burdens of human endeavor, ceaseless work, and faith in the future. As my body roams the cemetery like a ghost, a new horizon opens up in front of me. A path to infinity that flows beyond the narrowness of organicity, and reveals the possibility of a limitless existence.
As active movement loses sense among the graves, everything that is related to demise comes into play. Death, as the chief manifestation of contingency, is the fiercest enemy only of modern Western societies that are based on the primacy of intellect and the ideal of predictability. Many cultures that existed before the disenchantment view death as part of being. For example, the Moche that flourished in Northern Peru between the first and the eighth century, viewed the skeleton as a symbol of fertility. According to the ancient civilization, an individual can only reach the pinnacle of his political, social, and cultural roles after death. The Moche also believed that their lands had been fertilized by dead natives. They painted masturbating, oral, and anal sex scenes on their pots, existing to this day, where the potent character is always a skeleton. This suggests — as archeologists explain — that in their worldview ancestral fertility must be activated by living affines.
Not only can we look at “productivity” from a capitalist standpoint, but also as an increased room for maneuver. In this sense, the afterlife seems more fertile than day-to-day reality. Namely, because the proximity of the dead provides a refuge from the compulsion to create and of self-realization — especially in times when there is no absolute causal relationship between our actions and the events of the outside world; when our survival techniques cease to function. But the heat produced by muscle work and the resulting sweat remain certain under nearly all circumstances we could imagine in the present moment. As the minerals released through sweat, drip onto the earth, my body comes into contact with a sphere beyond the bright light. It is gradually leaking to a new level of reality whose entanglement over finity holds an unimaginable number of possibilities.
After getting a step closer, day by day, to this bustling, dark layer of existence, the wandering ends somewhere around the parcel dedicated to famous artists. Before I get here, I pass by a recently started construction as part of which about ten old trees were cut down. In the other direction, beyond the fence, is an ugly shopping mall. I may never have been here walking, as I have never been walking at many other parts of the cemetery either. I slowly return to the more orderly sections and then to the road that leads to the main entrance on Fiumei Street.
Excerpt from the essay "Darkness and Light" written in the autumn of 2020 as a contribution to "Body Divided," a book introducing the work of Czech artist Darina Alster, edited by Piotr Sikora.