A friend, a kind of half-frocked clergyman, found temporary employment a few years back as an assistant at a suburban Virginia funeral parlor that specialized in cremation. His specific task was to lend an air of ecclesiastical authority to the more bizarre requests received by the parlor; and thus he and his family would pack up on weekends and head off to distant parts of the region in fulfillment of my friend's melancholic duties. One weekend would find them in the Blue Ridge Mountains, scattering ashes from a scenic overlook before they sat down to fried chicken and lemonade. Another weekend, they might rent a motorboat and head out to the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay to launch an urn on a miniature barque before turning their attention to rockfish and crabs.
His vocation then stuck me as an odd one, even in that oddest of businesses; but in the time since, I've come to think that in his curious calling my friend had begun to lay a hand on the primal question for many Washingtonians 88 the one that distinquishes those who would make this city home from those who truly feel it in their bones.
There are, it seems to me, four classes of Washingtonians, divided along lines that have nothing to do with income, race, age or any of the other common demarcations. Of these, the natives and the temporaries are the most clearly opposite. The first inhabit a world that the rest of us are rarely given to know; the second a world that seems to force itself too much upon us -- a swirl of quick drinks, quick alliances, quick departures, the predictable artifacts of a world that shuns permanence. Third are those who come to Washington after the goose has laid for them the golden egg -- elsewhere: senators, Cabinet members, party throwers and goers, for whom Washington is largely a stage for the exercise and display of their attainments.
Fourth come the rest of us, those who have decided for whatever reasons that if the goose is to lay for us at all it will probably happen here, dead by the Potomac, and who thus set about trying to think of this place as home. And it is for this fourth group that the question of being planted at the end comes to form the acid test of assimilation. Finally, where we choose to lay our bones under -- after all the stage play is over -- that place is the one we have chosen to call home.
In truth, for that fourth class, the one-time transients who have become the new permanent class of Washington, this is not a good place to die. Washington is the city of the national dead: anonymous soldiers fallen in a fistful of wars, national leaders struck down at the crest. It is a city of wonderful ceremonies for the dead -- for what other purpose is the National Cathedral better suited? -- a city of monuments and abiding memories. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald are buried here, in Rockville, at long last in consecrated soil; Henry Adams' wife lies under that wonderful statue by St. Gaudens in Rock Creek Cemetery. But for those of us who will strike no universal tones, who deserve neither national grief nor permanent memory, who have dragged our history here from somewhere else and will drag it into the ground with us at the end, Washington is a forlorn place to go out -- a kind of secular Limbo such as Dante never imagined. We are the unbaptized, with neither Heaven nor Hell to call our own.
I like to think that, were you to meet me, you would think me a Washingtonian, for I've long considered myself just that. I can talk knowledgeably of networks; I have said, "Let's have lunch soon" to people I have no intention of ever seeing again. I have learned to regard yellow traffic lights with the same disdain as parking tickets; and I have even attended planning and zoning meetings. Yet more and more, I'm inclined to realize the masquerade in that -- and to suspect that I cannot be alone in my feelings. My graveyards are in Pennsylvania and Alabama; there lie the long brotherhood of my own dead. And I can't for the life of me, try though I might, imagine spending eternity in this city. It wouldn't be restful.