Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” was first published in 1983. It’s probably her most anthologized story, and is often read by older students.
Summary of “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”
A woman visits a terminally ill friend in the Intensive Care unit of a California hospital. The patient wants her friend to talk, to tell her things she won’t mind forgetting. The friend goes through various factoids and an anecdote about a chimp who was taught sign language.
There’s a camera in the room so the nurses can see what’s happening. It makes her a little self-conscious.
The patient refers to her as The Best Friend, to a nurse. It took the friend two months to make this visit, and it’s not a long drive. She’s afraid of looking closely at death.
Despite some signs of her illness, the patient is still attractive. She makes some jokes about her impending death. She laughs, and the friend tries to focus on that.
The patient wants to hear another animal story. The friend tells one about a hearing-ear dog. The patient makes more jokes.
The one the patient calls The Good Doctor enters the room. The patient flirts with him, and he’s attracted to her. He says she could have a year. He sits close to the bed and suggests the friend might want to go down to the beach for a while. The patient wants her to bring something back, from the beach or gift shop.
At the beach, she notices it’s earthquake weather. The friend remembers being in college with the patient during the big earthquake of 1972. They tried to prevent a further earthquake by thinking about it, because these things never happen when you’re thinking about them. They stopped when an aftershock hit.
The patient was never afraid of anything, not even flying. She was relaxed even during turbulence. The friend sees fear in her now.
Everyone is relaxed on the beach. Young girls apply oil to each other and pose. Young men drink beer and look at them. The hospital terrace can be seen from the beach. She thinks about the danger of the ocean.
The friend returns to the room and sees a second bed. She realizes the patient wants her to sleep over. Gussie, the patient’s parent’s maid, visited while the friend was out.
The patient’s face is bloated and she doesn’t feel well. The friend reads her some trivia from the paper, as well as a story of a man who robbed a bank with a barbequed chicken.
The story makes her hungry, so the friend goes to the cafeteria and brings back lots of ice cream. They lie in their beds watching a movie and eating the ice cream.
After a nurse gives the patient an injection, they both go to sleep. The friend dreams the patient is an interior decorator who does her place.
When they wake up, the friend says she has to go. She doesn’t have anything to offer and doesn’t say she’ll visit again. She plans on enjoying herself and staying up all night.
The patient has a silent tantrum, ripping off her mask, leaving her room in Isolation, eventually ending up in a supply closet. The Good Doctor is paged and nurses attend to her.
On the morning the patient is buried, the friend enrolls in a fear of flying class. She’s afraid it won’t cure her.
Looking back, the friend remembers lots of trivia that she’s not sure is true. She remembers other details she’ll use when retelling the story. She might say she stayed the night; no one would know she didn’t.
She also thinks of the chimp who learned sign language. She had a baby during the experiment and began signing to her child. When the baby died, she kept signing to it to hug her.
Theme: Fear of Death
Fear of death pervades the story. A statement the narrator makes allows us to interpret many other things in the story along these lines. She says of her sick friend: “I see fear in her now, and am not going to try to talk her out of it. She is right to be afraid.”
There’s an undercurrent of fear throughout the patient’s dialogue:
- She sounds flippant or dismissive at times—”tell me things I won’t mind forgetting”, she pretends to hang herself with the phone cord, she jokes that “Resurrection” should be one of the stages of grief, she jokes that a magazine subscription won’t do her any good. It seems she’s trying to minimize the fear she feels.
- She sound emotionally fragile at times—she doesn’t want to hear the sad part of the chimp story, and she says she doesn’t care about anything. The fear is more obvious in the first statement, as she can’t handle anything sad and there’s a more resigned fear in the second.
The patient’s tantrum when her friend leaves also seems to be rooted in fear. Faced with losing everything as her death looms, she desperately rebels against her fate as if she’s afraid of being in her room any longer. I’ve heard this incident interpreted as a suicide attempt (she’s masked and in isolation so this exposes her to germs) but I don’t think that’s consistent with the tone of the story.
The friend is upfront with us about her fear of death, telling us she doesn’t want to look too closely at it, which is why she took two months to visit. She was strongly affected by the story of a man who literally died of fright when he saw his car-wreck-mangled arm. It’s reasonable to assume it’s fear that prevents her from visiting a second time.
The friend tries to manage her fear after the patient’s death by enrolling in a Fear of Flying class. It doesn’t seem to help, as she tells us she shakes at night.
Other themes that could be considered include betrayal, denial and friendship.
1. What is the significance of the title?
The title seems to represent a denial of, and thus a fear of, death, fitting in with the overriding theme of the story.
The narrator references the title when she talks about the morning her friend was buried. It’s noteworthy, though, that she doesn’t say her friend died or was buried; she says she was “moved” to the cemetery. In the remainder of the story, she doesn’t directly say her friend died.
Referring to it as the cemetery where Al Jolson, an entertainer who died over thirty years before, was buried calls to mind the trivial conversation they had to avoid talking about death. The narrator still has the same feelings at this point.
2. What is the significance of the anecdote about the chimp?
The narrator seems to be drawing a parallel between the chimp and herself and friend.
The chimp lies by blaming the janitor for something it did. The narrator and her sick friend figuratively lie by avoiding any deep communication.
The chimp continues to sign to its dead baby, “fluent now in the language of grief.” After her experience, the narrator is also fluent in this language. That the chimp signs “with animal grace” could suggest the narrator has learned enough from this experience to handle the next one with grace as well.
3. What is the function of the beach scene?
This serves as a contrast to the hospital, and sets up the narrator’s refusal to spend the night.
The beach is full of healthy young men and women, who can be seen from the hospital terrace and windows. The proximity of the beach with its vibrant health to a building full of sick and dying people doesn’t seem right.
The narrator feels this affirmation of life. When she tells her friend she’s going, she thinks of living it up—driving fast, eating and drinking, listening to music, and staying up partying with people.