Now, I have a friend and colleague who as an impoverished boy in Egypt did in fact live in a mausoleum, or at least a tomb, with his (also living) family. Perhaps the same thing happens in the U.S.? —hard to imagine, but possible in these hard times, I suppose.
My student wasn’t writing about that, though. He was writing about the case of a man who took damaged funerary art from cemeteries, restored it, and sold some pieces, including a Tiffany window that thanks to his skillful ministrations brought him $64,000. As I’ve mentioned before, I like this case a great deal, because I ask students to decide exactly what, if anything, the man did wrong. They get a good lesson in defining terms, and I get to show them pictures of Tiffany windows.
The student in this example is obviously in tune with American law, which devotes most of its pages to property issues. The mausoleum in question—the “property”—has fallen into neglect; no living descendants of the family have come forward to maintain it or to complain about it, and no one is really sure whether there are in fact living descendants at all. Nevertheless, my student insists, the mausoleum is “property.” It may be property of the State of New York if not of the family. Even if we don’t respect the dead (or the living), we must respect the property, the idea that it is property. I can acknowledge the law, but I do have a hard time getting my mind around its metaphysical dimensions.
I’m sure my student meant to say “Whether the owners of a mausoleum are living or dead….” I really don’t think he was imagining a family in that little house/chapel/castle with its disintegrating Tiffany, a family cooking hot dogs over a campfire, snuggling down to sleep between the sarcophagi, setting a little alarm clock so they won’t be late for work or school, wishing they had a television set.
But regardless of his intentions, he has domesticated cemeteries for me forever. Every time he drove past a cemetery (and I do mean every time) my dear father used to say “No arguments in there!” Well, my student has created the possibility that there are arguments in there, among the inhabitants.
Next time you stroll through a cemetery, don’t be afraid if you hear voices raised in argument or campfire song coming from the tombs. They may not be the voices of the dead. Just sing along. But respect the property: leave the windows alone, and don’t step on the grass.