24 February 2012

The Sleeping Place

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.

As a child I first wandered through churchyards with my mother in Northern Ireland, pulling brambles away from old stones in order to locate the resting place of ancestors.  It was not morbid, but brought a deep sense of belonging and of my own history.  In recent years, my mother has had the privilege of leading new-found Australian or American cousins to an abbey graveyard near where she lives and stand, linked through the potency of bloodline, in front of the stone bearing the name of a mutual five or six-times great grandfather.

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 German war cemetery 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.

In the English language, cemetery or graveyard as words both seem too harsh to provide much solace.  Other languages appear more palliative, such as German where Friedhof  translates as peace yard.  Spanish, similar to us, has cementerio, yet also uses camposanto, or holy field.  And yet within the English word cemetery is hidden a much gentler derivation, from the Greek koimētērion –  literally meaning sleeping place.

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.

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