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A day of remembrance

All Saints’ Day is one of my favourite days on the Budapest calendar. To see policemen on traffic duty inside the grounds of the city’s major cemeteries makes me smile. To see generations of people making their way to the gravesites of those who have gone before them, armed with candles, flowers, and oftentimes food, warms the cockles of my sometimes cynical heart. To see families getting together to pray for deceased relatives and friends gives me faith that religion might still have a place in society, that it might still have a cohesive role to play.

All Saints’ Day is a relatively old feast day than can be traced back to 393 when St Ephrem apparently mentioned it in a sermon. It has its origins in the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their death. When, during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, martyrs became more common than not, the Church (namely Pope Gregory III (731-741)), instituted a common feast day on 1 November as a catch-all, to make sure that each and every one of them received their due.

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Although a practising Catholic, my visit to a Catholic cemetery on 1 November lasts barely long enough to buy some flowers (cemeteries seem to be the only places open in Budapest on that day).  Instead I visit the Old Jewish Cemetery, specifically the grave of author/journalist Bródy Sandór (1863-1924). I bring my flowers, say my prayers, and wonder whether Sandór is lying below, furiously kicking up the soil in an effort to dislodge my bouquet. I mean, All Saints’ Day is very much a Catholic holiday, not a Jewish one.

IMG_0227 (800x600)And yet, as all those devout Christians mill around the Catholic cemeteries, the emptiness and relatively neglected state of the neighbouring Jewish burial ground is a stark reminder of how quickly we forget. Just walking through it, seeing the fallen tombstones, the cracked paving, the overgrown graves, gives me pause for thought. Seeing memorials to those whose bodies never returned from the camps sobers me. Seeing benches that have broken under the weight of a collective memory gives me goose bumps. And I am reminded, yet again, of the transience of life and the importance of acknowledging the living lest we forget them when they die.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 November 2013

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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

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