A grave situation

Traffic jams in Budapest are a common enough occurrence. A traffic jam in a cemetery though? That’s something I’d never seen before. Cars queuing to get out of a place people are literally dying to get into. Police on point duty waving their neon-colour batons in an attempt to maintain some sense of movement in a place usually known for its inertia. At 5pm on Monday, 1st November, it was all happening at Újköztemető, the ‘new’ public cemetery out by the airport.

At 2.07 km2, it’s certainly the largest of the 17 cemeteries Wikipedia lists for Budapest and one of the largest in Europe.  Whole families came and went, carrying flowers, lighting candles, paying their respects. Young couples stopped in before heading out for the evening. Groups of elderly men lolled about, undaunted by the cold, finding warmth and solidarity in collective memories. School-aged children skipped blithely ahead of their parents through sculpted lawns and landscapes looking for nagymami’s grave. The evening air was full of chatter, daubed with the scent of chrysanthemums and melting wax. An elderly man sat motionless on a bench talking to those who had gone before him. One grey-haired woman had brought her thermos and, wrapped up in her blanket, had settled in to have her late-afternoon tea with a partner long since passed. For them, this was more than a flying visit. They’d come to spend some quality time with their dead,  a weekly vigil rather than an annual outing.

A world apart

Just a short walk from this hub of activity on Kozma utca sits another cemetery. At the turn of the 20th century, the remains of many of the city’s Jewish dead were exhumed and reburied here. Although this cemetery is home to some 300,000 Jews, walking among its dead is an entirely different experience. Much of the cemetery is overgrown. There are few well-worn tracks. Briars and brambles have lost the run of themselves. Tall reeds and grasses grow in curtains partially concealing names and dates. Curiously, many of the tombstones are wrapped in black plastic and sealed with duct tape, their epitaphs hidden from the world.

I passed by Hajós Alfréd’s grave and was struck by the relative anonymity in which he now lies. The first Hungarian to stand on the Olympic podium and receive a gold medal, the architect responsible for the monument for the martyrs of the Hungarian Holocaust now lies amongst those who seem to be largely forgotten. His tombstone is no less impressive for want of an audience, though. Further on, I noticed Bródy Sandór’s headstone, clearly marked Író to distinguish him from those less distinguished sharing the same name. His grave lies beside a pathway so he is seen by more than most here in Kozma utca. Yet the flowers that weren’t on his grave were all the more conspicuous by their absence. I would have expected more to remember his greatness. His description of a portrait artist as one who ‘turns souls inside out like the ordinary mortal does his socks’ is worth a petal or two. Next time, Sandór, I promise!

A loss of place

I’ve had a number of conversations recently about cemeteries and about the relative merits of cremation versus burial. One question that repeatedly pops up is whether cemeteries are for the living or the dead? When relatives move away, by choice or otherwise, those left behind and buried six feet under are often at the mercy of public authorities or small groups of caring souls who tend to their graves. Family graveside visits have become annual outings rather than weekly events. People are too busy living their lives to tend to the graves of those who have outlived theirs. Soon there is no-one left to care what happens to the plots. Those buried beneath are past caring.  Cremation seems a lot simpler. A momentary scattering of ashes: once done, what remains is a memory, easily tended.

Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book The Dominion of the Dead, makes this point: For the first time in millennia, most of us don’t know where we will be buried, assuming we will be buried at all.  From a historical or sociological point of view this is astounding. Uncertainty as to one’s posthumous abode would have been unthinkable to the vast majority of people a few generations ago. Nothing speaks quite so eloquently of the loss of place in the post-Neolithic era as this indeterminacy.

It is to recapture this loss of place that I spend so much time in cemeteries. Can anything be more certain than a life already lived?

First published in the Budapest Times 8 November 2010

Simplicity in death

I don’t know how I got there and I honestly doubt I could find my way there again, but somehow, when in Vilnius, I ended up in Bernadinu kapines (the Bernadine cemetery). Unlike others I’ve visited, I didn’t even know that this one existed. I was walking, looking for the old town. Turning down this street and that, completely lost, without a map. And then I saw a signpost … to the cemetery. I asked directions a couple of times but no-one knew where it was. And then I turned down this road, drawn by the flowers and through a gate saw a cottage, with some washing on the line, and then some crosses. And some more crosses. And then a sign saying it was the Bernadine Cemetery.

Founded in 1810 by the Bernadine monks (famous for breeding St Bernards for rescue work since the 1600s)  it’s now home to artists, academics, university professors and other ‘cultural workers’.  It shut its gates in 1970 and would seem to have remained unchanged since then. The paths are overgrown; the graves, too. The crosses are simple yet more effective than many more ornate headstones I’ve seen. As a cemetery, it has neither the magnficance of those in Zagreb nor the  grandure of those in  Malta. But perhaps its simplicity was what drew me there.

After all is said and done, what do we really need our tombstones to say? We lived, we died. And in that little dash in between those two dates, lies a lifetime. Who visits cemeteries any more? Tourists, like me, who share my fascination? Those still in mourning? I was the only one there that day. And by the looks of the graves, no-one had been there in quite some time.

I spent an hour or so wandering around, wondering. I came to no earth-shattering conclusions about life, the universe, or my place in it. I did, however, come away with a strange sense of peace – the first time I’d felt that in Vilnius, a city that unsettled me in more ways than one. And again, I wondered…

In June 2000, Felix Krasavin, a former Soviet-time political prisoner who now lives in Israel addressed a crowd of 5000 former Lithuanian political prisioners and deportees at the Vilnius Sports Arena. 2000. Just ten years ago. He said that Soviet Fascism killed more people than its German brother. I look at the books on my shelves and I see a gaping hole.

The right to be undistinguished

Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian street running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.

Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, the oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prerequisite for a job in that part of town.

Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.

I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.

When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.

It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prison a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system  and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.

Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.

The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….

Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

Hungarian Roadtrip: Budapest to Sárospatak via Tokaj

It’s about 248 km from Budapest to Sárospatak if you take the highways and stay on course, but that’s what trains and bus tours are for. When you have a car (thanks to PM), you can stop and start as often as you like. See a church spire in the distance? An interesting road sign? An oddly named village? Check it out. That’s the beauty of driving. And I love it. We left Budapest by 8am on Saturday morning and met very heavy fog outside the city. It felt as if we were flying through clouds rather than driving on tarmac. We were on our way to see a man about some nutbirds and the man lives in Sárospatak, close enough to the Slovakian border.  Once called ‘the Athens of the River Bodrog’ , it’s in the heart of the Zemplén region of Northern Hungary.

On our way, we decided to visit Tokaj, one of Hungary’s more famous wine regions. I’ve been to Villany and was impressed. I was perhaps expecting a little too much from Tokaj and was a little disappointed to see that like its wine, it’s just a little too sweet for my liking. It’s not as if they’ve haven’t had time to practice. There are records of vineyards in Hungary going as far back as the 5th century. The sweet, white dessert wine from Tokaj is probably the country’s most famous export,  christened by Louis XIV of France as ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’ – Wine of Kings, King of Wines. I’m no expert… and as long as I have difficulty getting my head around drinking a wine made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus Botrytis cinera (Noble Rot), I probably never will be.  Mind you, were I ever trapped in the region and unable to escape, I’d live quite happily with its Furmint – a rather nice dry white with a distinct apple flavour. The jury is still out as to whether this grape came from southern Italy or Hungary. Bearing in mind that in the summer the place is most likely overflowing with tourists, on this particular Saturday morning in November it hadn’t yet woken up. Most of the cellars were closed but we still managed to get a taste or three in before actually making a purchase. The town itself is the centre of a much broader wine-growing region and on the road to Sárospatak, we passed many vineyards. To take full advantage, you need to bring a teetotal driver as Hungary is notoriously strict with its zero-tolerance drink driving policy.

Driving the country roads, we passed many Trabants and it really felt as if we had indeed driven back in time. The pace was visibly slower. It might well have been the late 1950s, when the first Trabant came off the line. The fog had burned off by now and the autumnal leaves  were majestic in the sunshine. Scores of fishermen lined the riverbanks and lakeside edges. Flasks of coffee and bottles of hazipalinka littered the picnic tables as they waited patiently to catch their supper. It reminded me a lot of Alaska. The quiet. The beauty. The solitude. KG is getting much better at navigating and we trundled along without anydifficulties at all. There are still river crossings in Hungary where you have to drive onto a large raft and be literally pulled across. What a way to go. The more I see of this slower way of life, the more I dream of upping stakes and moving to that cottage by the sea. There is something quite godlike about it all.

We made it to Sárospatak with plenty of daylight left to make a quick trip out to the National Cemetery in Karos. It’s supposedly the richest cemetery associated with the first Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. I am struggling to find any information on this in English, so if anyone reading has a comment, please share it. From what I could see and understand, it appears to be a major archeological dig – there are lots of staked signs which I think mark the sites where relics were found. There is a large circle of totem poles, or what look very much like totem poles, but again, I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Back into town then for a last look at Rákóczi Castle and a glimpse of time gone by. The older part of the town is rather lovely; the newer part, rather new. Famous for its Calvinist college, the town has turned out many famous students.  In fact, the education system at the college was organised by János Amos Comenius, a Moravian humanist, late in the seventeeth century. Comenius is probably more famous for writing the world’s first illustrated textbook for children, Orbis Pictus (World in Pictures).  The organic archictect Imre Makovecz has also left his mark on the city (and a little bit of me wishes he hadn’t…I’m not quite sure I get this ‘organic architecture’ in urban areas). The cultural centre on Eotvos utca is a little too much for my liking as is the Hild Udvar shopping centre. But each to her own, I say.

The Hotel Bodrog, reputedly a **** hotel, was fine. Although unlike any **** I’ve ever stayed in (Hungary is quite liberal with her stars), it did the business: it provided a clean bed, a good breakfast, and a steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/pool complex… with the added realism of peeling wallpaper, chipped formica, and cracked walls. We ate in a lovely Italian cellar restaurant, The Collegium, which is well worth a visit, if you’re ever in that part of the world.  Despite being fortified by Furmint, any inclination to paint the town red was dulled by the fact that the town was closing at 10.30pm. mmmm I wonder just how much of the quiet life I could actually take.