Workers wheel Ralph Ellison’s coffin to a vault at the Trinity Church Cemetery on 153rd and Riverside Drive in Manhattan: “There’s no room in the ground to be buried.” His mourners follow the pallbearers out of a small, unadorned chapel. Classical music plays faintly from a cassette player. The vaults, about fifteen feet high, look like “oversized pink marble post office boxes in the sunlight.” The George Washington Bridge is visible in the distance, darkly present in the afternoon haze, like a bridge to a world beyond our own.
I’m reading an account of Ralph Ellison’s funeral, nine pages typed, hiding in a folder among the 127 boxes of Joseph Mitchell’s extant papers, at the New York Public Library. There is no byline, and it isn’t Mitchell’s prose. I stumble on it during my third day in the archives, sitting under lamplight at a corner desk in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room. Mitchell and Ellison’s friendship has never been documented, as far as I know, but here in the preserved debris of Mitchell’s life, Ellison fills an entire folder. Four, in fact. I keep reading: “The ceremony is perfunctory, and except for watching Joe Mitchell comfort Mrs. Ellison, his arms encircling her small body, his sorrowful face bent toward hers, you almost forget someone has died.” Read More