Missing mass

I like to go mass each Sunday and when in Budapest, do so religiously. Even when I travel I try to find a Catholic church and do my duty. But on occasion this proves impossible. Last Sunday, the only churches for miles were Southern Baptist, save for two others that were Methodist. I could have gone to either yet neither appealed without someone alongside me to explain what was going on.

The Church tells me that on occasions such as this, I should devote some time to prayer and reflection. Have my own mass, as it were. I prefer to find a substitute – a cemetery.

Regular readers will know that I have a fondness for cemeteries and coincidentally, there are a lot of dead people in Kentucky. Take the graveyard at the Hill Grove Missionary Baptist Church where the graves are adorned with mussel shells (a practice that has since been discouraged).

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IMG_4684 (800x600)Each grave is carpeted in green felt on top of which the shells are arranged. It used to be that the graves were decorated on major holidays but now, in this particular cemetery, the adornment is year round. It’s a blaze of colour and interestingly, while many of the tombstones were old and nearly illegible, the graves were all well-tended. I would imagine that even if those interred had no living relatives in the area, someone would make sure that the grave was kept. That’s the Kentucky way. Pride in appearance is noticeable even in how manicured the front yards are and I’d imagine that stepping out of line with the weed-whacker or failing to trim those hedges would bring down the wrath of the neighbourhood. Brings a whole new meaning to keeping up with the Joneses.

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Further up the roIMG_4828 (800x600)ad a little sits the Little Hope Cemetery. I had to laugh, if somewhat irreverently, at that one. Perhaps Great Hope might have been more appropriate, given that residents are facing eternal life. What struck me about this one was that it’s the first time I’ve seen tombstones so clearly label the family. Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, each one has its tag. Most peculiar.

IMG_4839 (800x600)IMG_4836 (800x600)Add this to the great age some of the residents lived to, given that life back in the 1800s wasn’t nearly as conducive to longevity. One tombstone even wrote out the specifics of the life that had been lived: 59 years, 9 mths, 29 days.

Another successful Sunday. The holy souls were prayed for; more than a few should have been released from purgatory. And my duties were discharged.

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A matter of perception

I wasn’t born a Catholic, but I may as well have been. I was baptised into the faith of my father (and mother) and have grown up with the institution that is Roman Catholicism. I’ve had my lapses. I’ve had my doubts. And I have points on papal doctrine with which I simply don’t agree. I remind myself constantly that the RC church is a man-made institution, made by men and moulded to their liking.

When I was at school, the exploration of other religions was not discouraged – it was simply never mooted as a possibility. And back then, apart from the occasional Protestant (he who kicked with the left foot), my interaction with other faiths was minimal to the point of being non-existent.

IMG_2955 (800x600)My fascination with the Holocaust began when I  read the Diary of Anne Frank. It was there that I first came across the Star of David. I bought one for my travel bracelet when I was in Budapest back in 2003. And I felt quite guilty wearing it for a while – as I’m not Jewish and have no inclination to join that faith, I questioned my entitlement to wear one. I wondered, too,  if non-Christians suffered similar angst when deciding whether or not to wear a cross and chain. And then I figured that in this day and age, where brand logos trump most iconic religious symbols, mine might be one of a minority of minds through which this thought has passed.

IMG_2951In Terezín last week, seeing the Star of David standing in the shadow of a large cross gave me pause for thought. The Star of David had context. It stood as if an angel, guarding the 2386 graves of the National Cemetery. Thousands more are buried in mass graves; all in all, the remains of some 10 000 people lie there. When I went to find out why these two symbols might be practically cohabiting, I discovered that the cemetery was created after the War had ended. Victims exhumed from other graves were moved there: from mass graves at the forced labour camp at Litoměřice; from shared graves in Lovosice, from the communal cemetery in Terezín. Victims of a typhoid epidemic were also included.

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IMG_2945 (800x600)Some of the stones were marked with names, numbers, and lifespans; others had simply numbers. Row after row after row of them, each one a stark reminder of the inevitability of death and the randomness of its call.

As if the town’s dead hadn’t suffered enough, in mid-April 2008, 327 bronze markers were stolen from the Jewish cemetery in Terezín;  700 more were stolen the next week. My first reaction when I read this: what depths people sink to. My second: what ends people are driven to. It’s all a matter of perception.

A grave decoration

As Easter beckons and as my mate Lori’s first anniversary draws near, I find myself thinking more and more about death – not that I have any intention of popping my clogs any time soon. I feel in some odd way that life is just beginning. Convinced as I am that I’ll live till the ripe old age of 87, I’ve time yet to fit in the odd piece of reflection.

In Hawaii earlier this year, I went to visit a cemetery. I’ve written before of this odd fascination I have with graves and tombstones and all things cemeterial (is there such a word?). While I thought it difficult enough to marry snowmen and sunshine, I found it a tad surreal to see the graves sporting Christmas trees, too.

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As with most of the cemeteries I’ve visited, the graves showed varying degrees of care and neglect. Some of the occupants seemed to have been the last in line, or perhaps the last in a line of those who cared enough to keep vigil. Oddly enough, although I rarely visit a town or city without paying my respects at the local graveyard, I have no great attachment to the graves of those deceased members in my own family. Perhaps it’s because the graves in Ireland are so sterile, so lacking personality, so … dead. Or then again, perhaps it’s because my close friends who have died have all eschewed a lasting marker and opted instead to be cremated.

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I think (99.9% certain) that I’m going to opt for the burning, too. I’ve gotten used to having a little bit of Lori sitting on my kitchen table and find myself talking to her quite regularly. I know she’s been working her magic for me and I’ve seen first hand the results of her interventions on my behalf. And, of course, there’s the beauty that ashes are so portable. Physical graves are all well and good for those who stay put and are available to tend their dead, but I’ve seen too many  testify to the transience of time and memory.  The Jewish cemetery in Budapest is a case in point.

Hawaiians are a happy people despite being nearly eradicated by disease when Captain Cook discovered the islands. This celebration of life shows even in their death. Perhaps the most poignant of all the graves I saw that day was a simple white cross around which a wild tomato vine was bearing fruit. This juxtaposition of life and death was a beautiful reminder than even in death, the dead live on.

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Grateful 9

Hate takes effort and energy and, quite frankly, I’m too lazy to expend either on something that offers little reward. There’s some food I’d rather not eat; some people I’d rather not talk to; some places I’d rather not visit. But there are very few things in life that I actively hate. Even people who don’t keep their word; who make promises they have no intention of honoring, while low of my list of faves, earn my pity rather than my hate [and,  imho, ‘sorry, I forgot’ doesn’t cut it as an excuse].

November 1 (aka All Saints Day, aka The day of the Dead) dawned bright and sunny this year. When I revisited an old blog post to see if I’d written about how to get to the Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca, I was surprised to find that the trip I made wasn’t last year, but two years ago, in 2010.  And I was horrified to find that I’d promised Bródy Sándor that I’d bring him flowers and now, two years later, I still hadn’t fulfilled that promise. I hadn’t forgotten – I’d just lost a year somewhere… Mind you, I doubt he’s given it much thought in the meantime, but still – a promise is a promise.

Off I trotted with the lovely BS, popping in at the New Cemetery to buy said flowers before walking up the road to the Jewish one. The contrast couldn’t have been  more startling. The former was packed solid, with police on point duty directing traffic; the latter was empty but for us, a strange man with a map, and an elderly trio who looked lost. All sorts of reasons for this emptiness came to mind – no-one left to remember the dead; the city’s Jewish population depleted; the competing priorities of progress. We mourned the neglect and cursed the wars and debated the pros and cons of cremation. It wasn’t until later, over goose legs and cabbage at Huszár that our waiter pointed out the obvious … All Saints Day is  Catholic day… nowt to do with the Jews. [If we’d brains, we’d be dangerous.] Poor Bródy must be turning in his grave.

As we wandered through the graves, I noticed a number with their own garden seat installed. It brought to mind long, one-sided conversations between the living and dead: reminiscences of the past and consultations regarding the future. Perhaps even some remonstrations for broken words and forgotten promises.

I was struck again at how beautiful the place is, no matter how overgrown, and perhaps because I’ve just finished reading The Invisible Bridge, it was all the more real for me. The monuments to those whose bodies will never be recovered were particularly moving. It’s a wonderful place to spend some time – and this week, I am grateful that although it took me a while to get around to doing it, I finally got to keep my promise.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Hope rings eternal

I must be the only person in the world who has not seen footage of 9/11. I was living in Alaska at the time  and I didn’t have a TV. I’ve never felt the need to watch it since as I’m already up to my tonsils in man’s inhumanity to man. I wanted to see Ground Zero though, but the queue was too long and I was too hot and anyway, with that many people crawling all over the place, I suspected I’d have been as disappointed as I had been when I visited the Cistine Chapel. I’m all for limiting the number of visitors at any one time so that that I can actually enjoy the moment and not feel put upon to move on.

I still wanted to pay my respects, so I popped into St Paul’s. It’s hard to believe that it withstood the bombings and has been there since 1766. I quite fancied that I saw shapes in the shadows of the tombstones and spent quite a few minutes wandering the cemetery. One stone in particular caught my eye, erected to the actor George Frederick Cooke (17 April 1756 – 26 September 1812), father of the so-called romantic style of acting. The stone was erected by Edmund Kean, the man who made that style famous. On it is written: Three kingdoms claim his birth; both hemispheres pronounce his worth. Not a bad legacy at all.

Close by stands the Bell of Hope, which was presented to New York by the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Centerbury in 2002. On each anniversary of 9/11 it is rung in memory of those who lost their lives. It also rang on 11 March 2004 when the bombs went off in Madrid, and on 7 July 2005 when London was hit. Symbolising the triumph of hope over tragedy, it would be nice if it tolled just once a year from now on. It is rung to honor the achievements of all peacemakers who srive, in ways big and small, to work for reconciliation around the world.

Nice one, lads!

Laid flat in Palm Springs

Palm Springs, California. Flat land surrounded by the San-Bernardino and the San Jacinto mountains that seem to rise up out of the ground. It’s hot. Bloody hot: 46 degrees in the shade (116 F). Posted signs give you an idea of how old the population is and yet when driving around, I didn’t spot any cemeteries. It took a while to reason why. There are no headstones. The only thing that gives it away is the wall surrounding a seemingly empty field.

We came across the Wellwood Murray cemetery, built for the first white settlers in Palm Springs. Wellwood Murray Jnr was the first to occupy this small plot of land in 1894. Once in there, his parents allowed other white settlers to be buried alongside him and in 1914 WM Snr , the pioneer hotelier, was laid to rest. He had opened the first hotel in the area, the Palm Springs Hotel, and set the town on the road to fame and fortune.

A ribbon of towns wends its way through Coachella Valley: Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca with barely a discernable difference visible to the novice eye. Over in Cathedral City, on Ramon Road lies  Desert Memorial Park, another quiet cemetery with nare  a headstone in sight. Home to the some more famous internments (as the guiding map so eloquently puts it), I stood for a while over Frank Sinatra’s grave.

Once, in London, waiting for afternoon tea in the Ritz, I sat near the pianist. He asked if I’d like him to play something for me.  I asked if he new any Sinatra. Knew him? He’d played with the man himself in South America. He asked what I’d like him to play. I told him to choose. He started playingI’ve got you under my skin.

Some weeks later, I was in a pub near Waterloo. The owner, a karaoke-loving freemason, told me he’d sing me a song. What would I like? I asked if he knew any Sinatra. He said he knew just the song for me. And yes, he started in on  I’ve got you under my skin.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous – and while I have no idea what He was trying to say to me, this song remains a  favourite.

Used to the more ornate and decorative European cemeteries I’ve visited, these two were rather quiet and somewhat sad. The more I think of it, the more I’d like to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in all those places I never got to visit…

A grave difference

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.

This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers.  The cemetery is also a  Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.

The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?

There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this: There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality. There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.

Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.

In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as  nišan tombstones.

Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.

Tomb with a view

Had I lived in Malta in the 1800s, it is unlikely that I’d have been buried in the Msida Bastion Garden of Rest. Not because I didn’t have the money or the lineage, but because I was Catholic. The vast majority of cemeteries in Malta are Catholic and for some, spending eternity with the Papists,even with one of the most spectacular views in Malta, just wasn’t an option.

In the summer, the Din L-Art Ħelwa  (This Fair Land), guardians of this and another 11 sites on the island) host tea parties in the afternoons to raise funds to keep it going. A tad surreal to think of nibbling on stawberries and cream while taking in the views of headstones and tombs. The longest resident was buried here in 1806 – and most of the occupants are military personnel, civil servants and their families.  Full up by 1856, bombed during the war, destroyed in large part by vandals, it took nearly ten years to restore the cemetery to a semblance of its former glory with its unique examples of Mediterranean nineteenth century funerary art.

Some of the epitaphs read like CVs; many more are illegible; and others still have been pieced together like jigsaws, still with key words and dates missing forever. I’ve visited a lot of cemeteries in my time and have read a lot of epitaphs. I’ve even wondered what I would like inscibed on my own headstone, should I go down that route. But, here amongst 560 graves in this small graveyard is one of the most beautiful legacies I’ve ever read.

Sacred to the memory of Lucy, wife of Theodore W Rathbone Esq. of Willerton Priory Lancashire, and eldest daughter of  Edward Pearson Esq. Altrey Wood House, Flintshire, who died in this island on the 19th of April 1848 aged 42 years. Most beautiful, engaging and lovely and in every relation of life, daughter, wife, and mother as nearly perfect as it is given to human nature to become on this side of the grave, it was her appointed lot to know much of the bitterest sorrows and trials the human heart can experience until at length broken down in health and long banished by fruitless wanderings from her much loved home, her chastened purified severely tried but still bright and hopeful spirit was in mercy taken by the Father by whom it was given, to a brighter and happier world and “yet speaketh” to the sorrowing survirors, a bereaved husband and his three remaining children. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one to another.”

Certainly a departure from the norm.

 

 

Ona a ne neka druga (Her and no other)

Cocktail hour in Belgrade. I’m chatting to a rather charming and very gallant gentleman who definitely has noble blood running through his veins. He tells me that he’s heard I have a peculiar fascination with cemeteries and that my fascination fascinates him. He then asks the question I have never been able to answer. Why?

‘Is it the architecture?’ he asks. I think for a while. And agree. Partly. The tombstones definitely tell a story. But strangely, what sits on top of a grave tells more about what those left behind think of the person that of what the person themselves might have had to say.

‘Perhaps it’s the history,’  he suggests. I think some more. And agree. Partly. Seeing someone’s photo, encased behind glass on their headstone, is a little strange. When the pictures are period photos, obviously not taken shortly before their death, it’s even stranger. Do people choose the photo they want to used to remind others of who they were? I know that no matter how old I get, I will always be 37 in my head and even in my heart. My body may age and the lines across my face may tell the stories of who I am, but in myself, I’ll always be 37. Perhaps I should look back for a photo of me taken then and slip that into the envelope that’s to be opened upon my death.

‘Or maybe it’s the sacredness?’ I think a while and then nod. I agree. Partly. Cemeteries for me are solemn places, bathed in shadows and quiet murmurings. (I’ve read Christopher Moore’s The stupidest angel, so I know better than to visit them at night, when those quiet murmurings become a little more.) And yes, if I had to pick just one reason for my obsession, perhaps this comes closest to describing it. It might well be that I’m on some sort of shopping trip, treating these cemeteries as catalogues, as I subconsciously plan a monument to my own life. I seem to vacillate between burial and cremation. A bit of both doesn’t make much sense – it needs to be either/or. And if it’s cremation …mmm…perhaps that explains my relentless urge to travel, to find that spot where my ashes should be scattered.Then again, do I really need a reason? Do I have to be able to explain it or is it simply enough to go with the attraction and pay my respects to all those who  have gone before be, those who have made my world what it is today.
[Photos taken in Zemun cemetery, Serbia.]

Who’s to blame?

Do I need to drag myself, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, or can I stay in my self-enforced state of denial, at odds with planners everywhere? I’m all for progress but I’m also for preserving the past. I detest new developments and yet I have have enough sense to know that when my building was built in 1896 it was new to someone, just as the newly built apartment blocks behind me will be old to someone in 100 years (if they last that long). Would I rather see a historic city or town alive or dead? Alive, of course. Would I rather see buildings still in use than abandoned to rats and litter? Of course I would. So why then is the Fort Chambray development coming between me and my sleep?

That building you see in the background is the original barracks built in the mid-eighteenth century. The two on either side, the ‘tastefully’ designed new development. In its heyday, the original fort housed 250 soldiers and a small hospital. It grew in size during the Crimean War and in its latter years was both a civilian mental hospital and a leprosy unit. All a far cry from this recent development which oozes money; the views alone are worth a king’s ransom.

Outside the actual fort itself, remnants of the old cemetery can still be seen. The remains were removed in 1991 and reburied elsewhere. Yet in the base of the crumbling walls some of the original headstones shine brightly in the winter sun.  We climbed down and waded through thick bush and marshy ground for a closer look. A handful of stones marked each one of the four walls. The inscriptions dated from 1895 and 1898, each one more poignant than the last. Lance Corporals, their wives, and their children, immortalised in stone. Above these walls, inside the Fort, the development nears conclusion. Coffee-tabled balconies, curtained windows, and the occasional car testify that someone was home. But for all this progress, walls have been destroyed. The original entrance gate has been closed off and a new imitation built. One could argue that it has been designed sympathetically. The colours, the shapes, all blend in. But sitting as this new-build does on  history, with so much of the original barracks still standing, I have to wonder why there couldn’t have been a little more restoration and a little less renovation. 

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I simply need to get with the programme. Perhaps if I had a couple of million to spare, I’d be happy to spend my evenings looking out over the Maltese Archipelago, my view unobscured. Maybe I should start looking to the future instead of clinging to the past. Maybe…maybe not.