I have always found abandoned buildings absolutely fascinating. There is something terribly melancholy about the idea that where there once was life, there isn’t anymore, and that few notice and even fewer care. I recently stumbled across the Abandoned Places group on Livejournal and have passed perhaps an inordinately large amount of time surfing through their archives, looking at the photos the self-dubbed “urban explorers” have posted of the abandoned places they have encountered while on an exploration. The images run the gamut of schools, homes, hospitals, asylums, factories, and cemeteries, and they’re all heartbreakingly beautiful in their own way. Some have been cleared out entirely, some are filled with reminders of the building’s former use, and many are tagged by graffiti artists.
Some kinds of abandonments make sense to me. When I was in Paris last spring, we visited the Pere LaChaise cemetery, a huge and impressive cemetery that spans many city blocks and in which many notables (including Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Jim Morrison, Frederic Chopin, and Gertrude Stein, among many others) are buried. The cemetery is also home to a rather significant number of regular people, some buried under stones and some in tombs above the ground. Most of the tombs were beautiful on the outside, many with poetic inscriptions and wonderful carvings (one tomb, apparently dedicated to a wife and son who perished together 150 years ago, had an inscription that read “There are days that might outmeasure years, days that obliterate the past, and make the future of the colour which they cast” on one side, and “Wherefore light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul?” on the other), but far too great a number were in obvious disrepair. The glass panels in the doors were broken and the passage of time had carried a century’s worth of detritus into the tombs.
My feelings on death and burial tend towards the school of thought that you can’t take it with you, so I’m not generally overly concerned with the usual trappings of eternal resting places (mine or otherwise) but as we wandered around, consulting the map and reading inscriptions and snapping photos, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the people buried in those tombs. It had been so very long since they had passed from this earth that everyone they loved, anyone who would have cared for their graves, were long gone too. We never want to believe that in 200 years, we’ll be all but forgotten, that everyone who would have remembered us and to whom we mattered will be gone too, but that is the sad reality of life on this corporeal plain, as they say. It’s gloomy, and it’s funereal, but it’s poetic and it makes sense to me. It’s almost comforting in a way to know that things progress as they should. Time marches on. People move on.
There’s a difference, though, with other abandonments. As I was surfing through the photos posted to Abandoned Places, I saw a number of different houses that were obviously abandoned very suddenly. The outside was falling down, and the inside was subject to looters and vandals, but it was obvious that the people who had owned that home had left at some point or another and simply not returned. All of their material possessions were still there, decades after they had last been used.
That is the kind of abandonment I find difficult to consider. The sadness there is sharper, more pronounced, uglier. I don’t want to think about the kind of horrific things that could happen that would cause someone to leave dishes in the sink and sheets on the bed, TVs plugged in and jars on the pantry shelves, and never, ever come back to them … but I can’t help but let my mind wander there. Why is there still dish soap by the sink and toilet paper on the holder in the bathroom? Who left the picture of Jesus tacked up on the wall? Were they escaping threats to their safety or that of their children? Were they fleeing from debt collectors or the possibility of life without parole? Or were they just running from memories and voices they couldn’t silence and couldn’t take anymore, not even for one more minute?
And did it work? Where are they now?