A dead Irishman

I just found a dead Irishman from Limerick, I said, quite pleased with myself. Well, he said, there are a few of us alive here, too. Conall French and his mum Aisling (from Bray, Co. Wicklow) own an art gallery in Costa Rica. Gallería Namu runs along Fair Trade principles rather than by consignment. Artists are paid up front for their work, which is then sold on to discerning tourists and collectors. Their mask collection is quite something. And if you’re simply interested in knowing more about the artwork of the various indigenous tribes, then this is the place to visit.

I’d stopped in on my way back from a visit to the Foreigners’ Cemetery where those unfit for burial in the nearby Catholic cemetery (i.e., foreigners) are housed. Located at the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 20 , Cementario de Extranjeros is now home to the remains of people from Germany, Norway, Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland, the USA, Peru, Panama …. and many more. It’s quite fascinating. The closest I could find to Hungary was Salzburg. But it was hotter than Hades and the ants were feeding on me so I was quickly losing the will to search.

Up a block on the other side of the street is the Cementerio General de San José. There are over 5200 vaults on the hectare of land including the graves of 22 former presidents.  The statuary is quite spectacular – among the best of any I’ve seen. So much so that it’s knocked Zagreb off its No. 1 Cemetery pedestal – in my rankings at least.

I had thought I was visiting Cementerio de Obreros de la ciudad de San José, but it was actually the cemetery next door – the workers’ cemetery, far more utilitarian in its statuary. The box-shape crypts are quite different to anything else I’ve seen in the various cemeteries I’ve visited. And I’ve been to a few.

The kiss of death

The origins of words and phrases are as fascinating as the words themselves. Some say the term the kiss of death grew from Mafia lore where, if the Don kissed anyone on the lips, it was time for them to sort out their will. More likely though, it refers to Judas betraying Jesus when he identified Him by kissing Him (Matthew 26: 47–49).

The Kiss of Death is immortalised in a 1947 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky (who, if you’re fond of your trivia, served as legal counsel to the Mystery Writers of America). Later, too, in 1995, there was a loose remake of the original, starring Samuel L Jackson and Nicholas Cage (note to self to watch it, as I’m quite fond of the pair of them). It’s also the title of a rap album and rap by American rapper Jadakiss. Can’t say I’d heard of him or that I was particularly taken with the rapping (am I even getting the terminology right here?). But, of far more interest to me, is that it’s also the title of a sculpture. 

Topping the grave of textile manufacturer Josep Llaudet Soler, El Petó de la Mort can be found in Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona. It was created in 1930 by either Jaume Barba or Joan Fontbernat. I can’t find any information on why this is disputed, except perhaps that as Barba has actually signed another sculpture in the same cemetery, it might seem odd that he didn’t sign this one, too. Or perhaps it was designed by one and carved by the other. Who knows.

Said to have inspired Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the tomb carries a quotation from Catalan poet, Jacint Verdaguer. The unattributed translation I found reads:

His young heart is thus extinguished. The blood in his veins grows cold. And all strength has gone. Faith has been extolled by his fall into the arms of death. Amen.

Dating back to 1775, the cemetery was the first to be built outside the city walls. Destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1813, it was rebuilt and opened again in 1819. It is interesting in that it is a cemetery in two parts. At the front, are the burial niches – seemingly for the hoi polloi. At the back are the individual tombs and the mausoleums, eternal home to the city’s wealthy.

The monuments include one by Italian sculptor Fabiesi of an angel carrying a young girl up to heaven. And while this suited the blue-sky day, I would imagine the El Petó de la Mort would look even more striking against stormy grey clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, this cemetery, too, has its pilgrimage site. Francesc Canals Ambrós, who died at the age of 22, is better known as el Santet (the little saint)He was first buried in one of the higher niches, but as this was impossible to reach, he was moved lower down. The 12 niches around him are full of mementos left by his followers – those who believe that he works miracles. In front, there is a mailbox of sorts, where believers post their petitions. In life, this young shop assistant reportedly gave his wages to the poor and collected old clothes to keep them warm in winter.

After his death (either from TB at home or in a fire saving his neighbours) those who’d come into the shop where he worked, started to drop by. Belief quickly grew that el Santet would grant wishes as long as they didn’t relate to money. And like Havana, there’s a ritual to be observed.

You say a prayer, post your petition, and then walk to the right of the niche without retracing your steps. When you get to the end of the row of niches, look back to look at the tomb in the distance. This is said to confirm your favour. And, once you’ve received whatever it is you prayed for, you need to return to give thanks. Judging from the flowers, it would appear to work.

Elsewhere, the gypsy graves, with their flowers are a colourful respite from the stonework.  Other graves have pictures of those interred, showing them as them as they were in their prime. One I was particular taken with, and a marked changed from the usual homage to holiness, was of a young man, with a beer bottle in his hand, cigarettes in his pocket and his sunglasses tucked into his shirt. It marks the grave of two brothers (perhaps?), Antonio and Juan Luis, but as to which one stands guard, I’m not sure. It’s definitely a deviation from the norm. But will it catch on?

If you’re interested in cemeteries, check out this great blog that has a wealth of information on opening times, locations, transport, and who’s buried where.

2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.

 

 

 

2017 Grateful 39

There’s something quite lovely about visiting a cemetery on a clear, 30-degree, blue-sky day. I’m a great fan of tombstones and would happily spend my holidays going from one graveyard to another but there are limits. I’ve not yet figured exactly why I’m so fascinated but it’s enough that I am.  If I’m in company, I settle for one in each city. It’s not for everyone. In addition to commemorating lives spent fruitfully or fruitlessly, cemeteries are outdoor sculpture parks. And very often, the leading local architects have the most interesting graves. It was in a cemetery in Warsaw that I saw my first headstone that listed the profession of the interred – an architect. I think it was in Belgrade that I saw a headstone designed as a futuristic building – again an architect. And in Havana, by far the most eye-catching grave (purely because of its oddity and ungravelikeness) was also that of an architect – José F. Mata. Mata is probably better known as the business partner of one Leonardo Morales y Pedroso – who seems to have won just about every notable commission going in the city.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) opened in 1876, its first guest being the architect who designed it: Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. It’s mapped a little like a small city, sitting on ca. 150 acres, with a main street leading from the gate to a chapel that looks a tad like a miniature Italian d’uomo. It’s off this wide avenue that the main players are buried. The sides streets and less-travelled neighbourhoods are home to those who didn’t quite make the big time. Rank and file still applies in death. Amazing.

Stats say that more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here (a temporary respite for some, as with space at a premium some bones are being put into storage to make way for newcomers). I can’t quite figure out how the storage system works. Lots of the graves and mausoleums have been abandoned because families are living abroad – so upkeep is obviously a problem. Are those the first to be targeted?

Throughout the city of Havana you’ll find reference to the great fire of 17 May 1890 and those firefighters who died in an attempt to control it. Here, at Colón, there’s a 75-foot-tall memorial to those men, the hanging pods on the chain-link surround representing the tears shed when they died. It’s quite something.

I had only one visit on my list (because I was ill=prepared and didn’t do my homework). It was to pay my respects to Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. A worker spotted us looking and took it upon himself to give an impromptu, and unsolicited tour, for which he expected €5, the same as the entrance fee. From all I understand, this expectation is new – in its infancy – and can even be timed to the arrival of the first cruise ship last year. But hey – we only had 3CUC between us and it was that or a smile. He got both.

Had I done my homework, I’d have spent more time looking for photographer Alberto Korda’s grave (1928–2001). I love his work. He took the iconic photo of Ché titled Guerrillero Heroico that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used for his equally iconic facial caricature used on t-shirts the world over.

I’d also have taken the time to search out socialite Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto (1900–2009), the Canadian widow of a wealthy Cuban businessman who died in poverty. Back in the day, Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. She refused to leave Cuba and couldn’t get at her money because of the US embargo after the Communist takeover. She lived on a tiny pension and died at 108, buried alongside her husband. Quite the gal. And her dad was Irish.

Although confined to a wheelchair after breaking a hip in 2002, she continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick for her stream of visitors, just as she had done in the days when she helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and danced at the Havana yacht club. But she was reduced to wearing plastic pearls and earrings instead of the jewellery which, along with three gold rosaries, was in the First National Bank in Boston; and she was keenly aware that the joy had gone out of Havana, even if there was full employment.

And I’d have dropped by and said hello to William Lee Brent, an American in exile in Cuba for 37 years – and a member of the Black Panthers. He hijacked a passenger plane in 1969 from Oakland, CA, and diverted it to Cuba where he defected, because Cuba…

had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless.

They jailed him for 22 months thinking he just might be a spy. Some guys just can’t catch a break, eh. His biography is now on my list of books to read. Fascinating.

 

But the grave that gets the most attention is one of Amelia Goyri, perhaps better known as  La Milagrosa (the Miraculous). She died while giving birth back on 3 May 1903. She was just 23. Her husband José Vicente Adot y Rabell was distraught. He believed that she was simply sleeping. He visited the grave every day for years, each time knocking on it three times to wake her up. Story has it that she was buried with her baby at her feet yet when the remains were exhumed (not sure why), Amelia was intact and was now holding her baby son in her arms.

As the story spread and more and more people came to visit Amelia, Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra turned a piece of Carrara marble into a life-size statue of a young woman. Her left arm holds a baby. Her right arm rests on a cross, something that apparently signifies a sacrifice.

While we were there, there was a steady stream of visitors, each one knocking on the grave three times, and then walking backwards away from it, as Amelia’s husband is said to have done, so that he could keep her in sight for as long as possible. Today, visitors pray to her to protect their kids, they pray for a safe childbirth, they pray to defy the biological odds and have children of their own.

I didn’t know this then, but I knocked. And I prayed. And I walked away backwards. Relax… I said a prayer of thanks, yet again, for the blessed life I lead, for the places I get to visit, and for the people I get to meet along the way. For all this, I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

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IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

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When talent lives on

I was in Paris many moons ago and didn’t care for it much. I have only vague recollections of being there, no lasting memories other than a rather poor impression of the city and its people. This has been fed over the years by the somewhat stereotypical generality that all Parisians are rude and arrogant and not at all helpful.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and I found myself back in Paris again. Getting off the airport bus at Montparnasse, we went in search of the metro. It took us an age. Navigating the ticket machine took longer. Long enough for the old feelings to resurface to the point where I was cursing under my breath and wondering why I’d ever thought the city deserved a second chance.

IMG_6315 (800x600)Later that afternoon, having decided to spend the following day hopping on and off a tour bus, we went to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. I quite fancied spending a couple of hours amongst the dead. The list of interned is impressive with so many talented people lying beneath stone slabs that it was just a little surreal. The cemetery itself, all 110 acres, is a warren that is difficult to navigate, even with a map, section as it is into divisions that apply a numbering system that defeats any logic I’m familiar with. But we had helpers, elderly people who were happy to guide us to where we wanted to go, all the while chatting away in French, oozing friendliness, asking if we’d read this person or that, and suggesting famous French artists of whom we’d never heard. They put paid to my long-held belief about Parisian arrogance. They couldn’t have been nicer.

IMG_6319 (600x800)Jim Morrison was on the list, not because I would recognise a single song he sang, but because I have very fond memories of working with a German friend in San Diego who thought he was the closest thing to God on Earth. His was the only grave with a police guard. He died of a suspected heroin overdose in a bath tub in Paris at the all too young age of 27. Morrison made the news again last year when Marianne Faithful said in an interview that he had been accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps only Morrison knows what really happened. Many of those who had come to visit and to leave their tokens of remembrance weren’t even live when The Doors were all the rage, suggesting, to this fanciful mind at least, that it is through music and the arts that we can best achieve immortality.

IMG_6350 (800x600)IMG_6352 (591x800)As we wandered up and down the footpaths, we spotted famous names that rang a bell with me. I knew of Marcel Proust but unlike my more literary companion, the well-read EZ, I could remember reading nothing by him. À la recherche du temps perdu rang a bell,  as she ran down a list of his novels that she had read, but aside from a vague stirring that I might have waded through that for my Leaving Cert French, I felt nothing. A quotation of his to do with the real voyage of discovery being not seeking new landscapes but seeing with new eyes fluttered to the edge of my subconscious but didn’t get any farther.  I did remember Balzac though, and the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but had forgotten that he didn’t actually write it. And I know I saw the movie, too. Shame on me. I resolved, on the spot, to brush up on my classics at some stage in the next twenty years – such ignorance is embarrassing.

IMG_6335 (800x600)IMG_6367 (600x800)Edith Piaf I recognised of course. How much of that is due to the fact that when I first came to Budapest, I was a semi-regular at the club called after her. I couldn’t swear that I knew of her existence before then though. I’d like to think I did, but hand on my heart, I’m not at all sure.

Frédéric Chopin, I knew, too. How could I not, after seven painstaking years of practising the piano, struggling up through Grade 8 at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and today not able to play anything other than the opening bars of Scott Joplin’s, The Entertainer. Coincidentally, working on a book this week, I read that during WWII, Nazi propagandists falsified biographies of favoured Polish composers so that they could ignore the ban on performances of Polish music. Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland, declared that ‘Friedrich Schopping was a genius and hence could not have been Polish. He was the finest composer born in German lands.’ How history can rewrite itself. Chopin died in Paris of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

IMG_6341 (800x600)IMG_6338 (600x800)My saviour that day though was Oscar Wilde. Him I knew. Him I could quote. Him I had read. I hadn’t realised though that his tomb had caused such controversy. The sphinx’s missing testicles are said to be serving as a paperweight somewhere. A glass barrier was erected in 2011 to deter people from kissing the stone (in a nod to Wilde’s thought that ‘a kiss may ruin a human life’) and leaving an imprint, a fashionable trend that upset the tomb’s guardians, the lipstick apparently eroding the stone. It’s an odd piece, with a fascinating story. And while many have tried (and failed) to read some Oscar into what the sculptor had in mind, at least the epitaph pays tribute to one of his greatest works – the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

IMG_6332 (800x600)IMG_6363 (600x800)A grave that stopped me in my sentimental tracks was that of Bernard Verhlac, one of the French cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year. His was a far more recent death not brought about by disease or old age or risky living. His was a life cut short so randomly as to make no sense at all.

There’s a part of me that believes we choose the lives our souls need to live to learn the lessons we need to learn or serve a purpose we need to serve and we get to do it repeatedly. But that said, sometimes it’s beyond why… so far beyond that perhaps the only rejoinder is ‘why not?’

Père Lachaise is a beautiful spot to while away an afternoon and recalibrate. A place to remember that the world is full of talented people, each making a difference in their own way. Not all of us have to make centre stage and be immortalised in prose or verse or vinyl. The rest of us are simply those other people.

I am determined to get around to catching up on my classics, but until I do, I take comfort in Wilde’s position that

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught

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Back by popular demand

Modesty aside, I think I have a fairly decent vocabulary. I can’t lay claim to knowing every word in the dictionary but I could make an educated guess at the meaning of most. Yet I’d never heard of a charnel house. Char I could do, but charnel?

IMG_6153 (800x600)IMG_6154 (721x800)Last week, in Naples, I visited a massive charnel house and didn’t even know I was in one until I’d left. Back in the day, when cemetery space was in short supply, it was common practice to bury bodies for a  few years to let them decompose and then dig them up and move their bones to a charnel house where they’d take up far less room. In Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, a 30 000 square metre cave in the hillside was once home to eight million of such bones. Today it’s thought that the remains of about 40 000 lie here but for the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could count.

IMG_6195 (800x600)The original inhabitants had been relocated from cemeteries in the city in the sixteenth century to make room for those who insisted on being buried in their local church grounds – now there’s a different take on eviction. With the Great Plague of 1656, thousands more were added to the displaced. A century later, a great flood washed many of the bones out onto the streets  (has a movie been made of it yet I wonder?). In the nineteenth century, it was officially named a pauper’s cemetery and its  last big influx was provided by cholera victims of the 1837 epidemic.

IMG_6161 (800x600)IMG_6172 (800x600)IMG_6178 (800x600)The bones are anonymous – rows and rows of skulls sit atop stacks of femurs and tibia, and stare back at you. I fancied I saw holes in some that suggested bullet wounds but it might well have been damage done in transit. It is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been – and I’ve been to a fair few cemeteries in my time.

IMG_6174 (800x600)Some have names carved into boxes but these may not match the bones inside. Apparently a cult took shape in the late 1800s when it was fashionable to adopt a skull and give it a name, a name that was often transmitted to the adopter through a dream. They would come to pray to their skulls and make offerings in the hope of having favours granted. The cult of the  anime pezzentelle (abandoned souls) lasted into the late 1960s when the city’s Cardinal Ursi had enough. What might to those involved have seemed like caring for people in death who had no one to look after them in life, was branded a fetish and the cemetery was closed. It was renovated a few years ago and is now open to the public. Back by popular demand ….

IMG_6199 (800x600)It’s hard to find though so if you’re in Naples and curious, take Line 1 metro to Materdei. Walk down the hill and around the corner to the left. Half-way along that street there are steps going down even more. Take these to the bottom and turn left. When you get to the small piazza, hang left and the cave is just past the church (worth a visit – a lovely change from the ostentation of the bigger city churches) on your left. Free entry. Open 9-4pm.

 

Eternal rest?

I’ve heard tell that Muslims are buried standing up. And the Muslim cemeteries I have been to would suggest the same. I did some digging and while there’s a wealth of information available on various websites and blogs, it is often contradictory.

IMG_4329 (800x600)From what I can gather, as soon as you die,  your eyes are closed, your jaw is bound, and you’re covered with a sheet. It’s a quick burial – before the next sunset or within 24 hours (and I thought the Irish were quick about it). The body should face Mecca – or the head at least – and some say that a copy of the Koran should be put under your head (not sure how this would happen though, if you’re standing up).

Hidaad (mourning) for a family member lasts for just three days. No unwanton display of emotion is permitted as it might disturb the dead. Irish banshees and caoiners (professional wailers) would be out of business. Women who have been widowed though have an extended period of mourning – Iddah (or Edda) – which lasts 4 months and 10 days. During this time, the woman can’t wear perfume or jewelry, can’t remarry, and has to sleep at home each night, only leaving the house to go to work or run errands.

IMG_4330 (800x600)Irish Catholic funerals are more for the living than for the dead. I’ve been to funerals of people I’ve never met, but I knew their sons, daughters, sisters, whatever. At a Muslim funeral, men face Mecca in the front row, then children line up in the second, and then the women. I’ve said before that if there’s a feminist streak in me, it wouldn’t cut butter on a hot day, but still this is something I think I would have difficulty with. The entire service takes place standing and a significant part of it is silent.

IMG_4325 (800x600)There are lots of variations on the above, depending on what you read and where. What’s interesting for me though, is the standing part. I know my soul will leave my body when I die and that my body couldn’t care less what position it’s in, but enough Irish folklore has seeped into my blood for me to still balk at the idea of standing upright for eternity.

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For the most part, graves are above the ground and there’s a marked absence of flowers and candles. I wonder what Muslims in Hawaii do, given the locals’ penchant for decoration? In the province of Istanbul, there are 333 cemeteries, apparently, of which 268 are Muslim. The one I happened across was rather small and as I couldn’t make head nor tail of the dates, I have no idea of its age. Even with the complete lack of adornments (and perhaps because of same) it was rather beautiful.

I have no idea of the name either. The sign on the wall outside said ‘Türk Ocağı İstanbul Şubesi’, which according to Google Translate means ‘Turkey, Istanbul Branch in January‘. But I’m sure it was a cemetery….

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Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world

Sitting in a hotel room on a Sunday morning in Geneva last month, it seemed as if my plans for the day were doomed. To get to where I wanted to go, I’d have to take a train out of the city and then double-back by bus (the only route).  I’d just discovered that both Richard Burton and Alistair MacLean were buried about half an hour by car outside the city in the village of Céligny, but in the few hours I had before dinner with some friends, I wouldn’t have time to make the trip. Then my phone went. It was DD. Before dinner at his, he said, why not visit a little cemetery he’d come across just outside the city.  I texted back, already knowing that the universe had listened. ‘It wouldn’t be in Céligny by any chance?’

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Lots of famous people are buried in Switzerland. I was quite surprised that Richard Burton would end his days in this tiny sanctuary – Vieux Cimitière –  also known locally as the protestant cemetery. But then I hadn’t known that he’d lived amidst the 600 or so locals for the last 26 years of his life  in a three-bedroom converted farmhouse that had a library bigger than the cottage in which he was born.

IMG_2908 (600x800)And I was equally surprised that given there are fewer than 30 (I think I counted 28) resting peacefully around him, that one of these should be Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean. I grew up on MacLean. I begged my dad to join the local library so that I could use his tickets to pick books from the adult section. The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare  – I loved them all. Although not yet old enough for the library’s classification of adult, I was ‘safe’ with him as, quite unusually for his genre, his heroes never had sex; he believed that it, and romance, simply got in the way of the action. For a man who made a fortune churning out thrillers (so much so that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile), he never claimed to be a writer: ‘I’m not a born writer, and I don’t enjoy writing […] I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished.’ And yes, Mr MacLean, sometimes it showed. Nonetheless, thank you for the many many hours of mindless entertainment you gave me and so many millions of others – and thanks too, for the entreaty you left on your gravestone.

IMG_2915 (800x600)IMG_2913 (600x800)Near both of these famous people lies another man. André Bordier’s eternal words are quite simple – vis ta vie – live your life. I have no idea who he was, or what sort of legacy he left behind, but I was completely enthralled by the sculpture that stands on his headstone, wondering briefly if it was an African-influenced take on the Madonna and Child.

It’s a lovely spot, hidden from the world  off a small country lane that runs by a stream. It’s quiet, full of shadows, with a a sense of peace about it that would lend itself to reading. I can think of worse places to spend eternity.

IMG_2938 (800x600)IMG_2928 (800x600)Not far away is the new cemetery, a different world entirely, with closely set graves that belie whatever attempt was made to put them in order. Encased behind a wall that clearly marks its territory, it too is quite beautiful, but in a different way. It has none of the wild abandon, the natural simplicity of the Vieux Cimitière. Add this to the engraved inscription above the gate – Ici l’égalite – and it would seem that a point was being made by its almost random orderliness.

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I couldn’t help but contrast the wordiness evident here that was missing from the simpler graves next door. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering how many people give thought to their epitaphs.

The contrast was remarkable. I’m now leaning heavily towards a preference for nature running wild, with just a little bit of pruning, rather than the more modern gridplot effect that, even with flowers, can be a little sterile. No one really dies to order, do they? And few of us live the type of orderly life that should be mirrored by our graves.

 

True till the end

I’ve often wondered where the bitches and the bastards are buried. Those nasty people who beat their spouses, molest their kids, kill their mates. In all the cemeteries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a gravestone marked with ‘Here lies the b______, may they rot in hell’ or even anything approximating it. I have seen some that offer just the opening and closing dates of a life with nothing extra, and perhaps this was because those burying the corpse had nothing good to say about it. Perhaps. What’s that old adage? If you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all?

IMG_2887 (800x600)IMG_2879 (800x600)None of this was on my mind as I visited a cemetery in the heart of Geneva. Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, is near the Plainpalais and not all that easy to find. I had to ask four people before I found someone who could direct me  (mind you, that could be a reflection of my pathetic French pronunciation!). But find it I did, eventually. It’s a lovely oasis in the heart of a built-up, lived-in neighbourhood, a walled-in park where people come to sit and chat and have a picnic lunch. This was a little at odds with the Geneva I thought I knew and, not for the first time, I found myself revisiting the opinion I’ve formed of the city.

IMG_2870 (800x600)IMG_2871 (600x800)Home to such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges and John Calvin, former presidents, and a palette of artists of various forms, the cemetery is populated with simple headstones that lack the sculptor-ish wows, of say, Milan or Zagreb. And yet they are quite remarkable in their simplicity and their natural form.

Many are without accolade, opting for the sparsest of biographical detail – born, died, and spent the time in between painting, or writing, or whoring – or all three.  Yes, that one surprised me, too. And I was equally touched to see fresh flowers on Ms Real’s grave and two young men in attendance. Whether they knew her or not, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they, too, were moved by the honesty of the inscription, moved enough to weed and water and pay homage to a woman who knew exactly who she was. Or then again, perhaps she had no say in the inscription and some bitter ex-husband or grieving family took their parting shot. That’s the wonder of the dead – they can’t contradict the stories I choose to make up in my head. No wonder I find them such good company.

IMG_2886 (800x600)IMG_2873 (800x600)Five years of French were called into play as I tried to decipher what might be described as the anomaly – the one with the full-on testament to a life well lived. I read and re-read the inscription, picking out words that I was relatively certain I understood and then trying to make sense of what went in between. I thought it rather lovely, and for the millionth time wondered what would be said about me when I’m gone. Then again, I’m nearly at the point where I’m opting for cremation and ash scattering, so that might no longer be all that relevant.

IMG_2882 (800x600)IMG_2878 - Copy (600x800)Cemeteries are wonderful places in which to take stock of life. To stop for a while and get off the incessant treadmill that is twenty-first-century living. To reflect on what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why you’re bothering. Occasionally, you meet some honesty, some real truth. More often you see memories inscribed on stone, memories that might well be a case of remembering the best and ignoring the worst. And in some cases, as in Geneva, you simply get the facts. The bare facts.

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