In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried

Hempel, Amy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Feb-14-2001
  • Last revised: Aug-29-2006


The setting is the California coast (presumably in the Los Angeles area). The narrator recalls her one and only hospital visit to her best friend, who was dying. Why has it taken her so long to make this visit? Because she is afraid.

When she arrives, her friend is wearing a surgical mask, and so must she. They talk about inconsequential things, bantering, but then her friend says that there "is a real and present need here . . . like for someone to do it for you when you can’t do it yourself." The narrator tells her sick friend the story of a dog who "knows when to disobey."

The narrator remembers how she and her friend played a word-game to ward off earthquakes. Now, however, it is not a question of "if" but only of "when." When the narrator returns to her friend’s hospital room after taking a walk on the beach, there is a second bed there. The narrator knows it is meant for her, so that she can keep vigil. Both women take a nap, but on awakening, the narrator says, "I have to go home."


This story is an intriguing, frank, and pithy rendering of complex reactions to the dying of loved ones. Hempel’s clipped style and the ironic humor of the friends’ interchanges serve only to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. The friends confront imminent death and loss in the tone that has characterized their relationship since college days, which seem not to be very far behind them.

Al Jolson is buried in the cemetery where the dying girl will be buried; his blackface mask may symbolize the "show" that everyone, including the doctors, is putting on. Underneath the banter, underneath the surgical masks, is grief laden with fear. The narrator, who has a history of fearfulness (of flying, of earthquakes) fears her friend’s death, but also fears that she will die by exposure to it. The dying friend, who has always been fearless, is afraid to die alone.

The narrator must rescue herself by not staying to watch--or actively help--her friend die. Indeed, the narrator views her friend as already dead ("she was moved to the cemetery"), so what is the point? Another form of rescue, and expiation of guilt, is in the "retelling" of these events, to which the narration draws attention by switching back and forth from the past to the present tense. Storytelling provides options for different behaviors, and provides explanations. In addition, the story serves as a memorial--reinforced by Hempel’s dedication underneath the title: "for Jessica."

This is a work to which young adults can readily relate. It could be paired with Chana Block’s poem, Visiting Hours Are Over (for a hospital visitor’s reaction) and Tim O’Brien’s story, Good Form (for the value of retelling and the nature of narrative truth)--both pieces are annotated in this database.

Primary Source

Reasons to Live



Place Published

New York



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