I am very drawn to graveyards.
Odd, perhaps, to want to mooch around in such spots when, in the end, there will be plenty of opportunity.
This is not to make light of the fact that cemeteries are places that can evoke immense sorrow. Walking amongst headstones is tantamount to reading a history of cruel loss – the scythe of epidemic through families, children taken long before their time, teenagers who gambled and lost.
But they can also document the triumphs of longevity, and the pull of love between spouses who die within a year of each other. They can give a humorous nod to the fallibility of stone engravers who neglect to forward-plan and add a tiny hasty “a” to the word “dughter” or scrunch lettering as they come too suddenly to the end of a line.
Foreign cemeteries contain their own quirky hints about how the dead are mourned, or celebrated – the stacking of the recently departed in what look like wall lockers above the ground in places such as Spain, the cedar fronds placed in a bowl in front of graves in the Black Forest in Germany and used to sprinkle each plot three times with holy water, the addition of photographs in countries such as France (leading, no doubt, to debate about which exact picture to use), the picnics enjoyed in graveyards by Mexicans and Japanese, the asymmetric headstones in Georgia and the structures built around them – sometimes even with a TV set so that relatives can spend longer time at the side of their loved one.
Yet the most moving cemetery I have ever visited was a war cemetery in
Northern France. Unlike in the Commonwealth war cemeteries with
their immaculately kept flowered borders and white stones, here were no fine
words about how this parcel of land had been donated in thankfulness by the
French nation. Stretching up a slight
incline towards the horizon were dark metal crosses. Eleven thousand of
them. Each cross marked the burial site
of at least four soldiers. Over forty-four thousand men lay in the ground.
The cemetery in question was the
at Neuville-Saint-Vaast. And the most eye-watering irony of all was
that scattered in amongst the dark crosses were one hundred and
twenty-nine headstones bearing the star of David. For during the 1914 - 18 War, Jewish soldiers,
too, fought and died for the Fatherland. German w ar c emetery
Every time I wander such a sleeping place, my feet still firmly on the surface of the earth, it appears to offer up profound instruction. Live now, it seems to say. Live as though your very soul depended on it.