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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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2014 Grateful 40

Some people celebrate their birthdays in style. Some ignore them completely. Others still, like my mate GB in Malta, visits a cemetery. He’s not fussy about which one; as long as he gets to a cemetery on the day, he’s happy. He’s been doing it for years; he says it’s life-affirming.

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I can relate to that. I have a thing or three for cemeteries, for the perspective they give and the calm they offer. Last week I visited GB’s favourite – Ta’Braxia – in part because I wanted to escape the madness, and in part because my mate Lori’s second anniversary was coming up and I needed to connect.

20140328_133153_resizedI hadn’t realised that back in 1915, Malta was treating the sick and wounded from military campaigns in Gallipoli (billed as one of the Allies’ great disasters of WWI) and the little-known Salonika, when in October 1915

a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. 

From these two campaigns, over 135 000 wounded found their way to Malta. It’s little wonder then, that the island’s cemeteries are full of foreign-sounding names.

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Fast forward to WWII. While it was never invaded, Malta was bombed… and bombed… and bombed. Such was her perseverance in the face of adversity that in April 1942, the island and her people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

In Ta’Braxia cemetery, about 2 km outside of Valetta,  lie many of those who fought in both wars. I was struck by some of the inscriptions.

20140328_133603_resized-1 (800x600) (800x600) And another that simply said: Life’s work well done. Now come to rest. That’s something I wouldn’t mind being able to say with a measure of honesty when my time is up.

Some died of fever, others had drowned. More still were the wives and children of serving military from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France. While the men were remembered for their bravery, the women were remembered for their roles. One headstone in memory of Georgina read: The good and faithful wife of Mr John Sullivan, head-master of H.M. Dockyard school, Malta. She was just 25 when she died.

It was a lovely day; just the right sort of weather to visit a cemetery. And we had the place to ourselves, apart from a gardener or two. There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to stop and pay your respects, particularly to those who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world.

It was a manic week entailing lots of people-time. I’m physically and emotionally wrecked. I miss Lori terribly and wonder how much she can see from where she is. I’m grateful though for whatever it was that planted this appreciation for cemeteries in me and for that need I feel to spend time with the dead. Some might think it morbid, but like my mate GB, I find it life-affirming.

 

 

 

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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The grass on the other side

One of the first things that struck me about Oslo was the amount of green in the city. There are parks everywhere. And those parks are full of people. Reading, chatting, strolling, running, walking dogs, playing ball. It took me back ever so briefly to my first glimpse of the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

IMG_6587 (800x600)Yet perhaps what is most striking about these parks is how many of them are cemeteries. The gravestones have a sense of orderly chaos about them. There are no straight lines, no landscape designs, no uniformity. And yet each one is pristine and well-tended oozing a sense of serenity that doesn’t just come from chirping birds and manicured lawns.

IMG_6590 (800x588)Trees grow from graves. Small bushes abound. Flowers are planted rather than vased or bottled. All are real.

We think of cemeteries in the abstract, as final resting places, yet for those of us who believe in an afterlife, in a chance to come back and have another stab at living a human life, that resting place is simply for our bones. The rest of us has travelled further.

I sat through the first series of New Tricks last week, glued to my laptop, fascinated by one character who sits and talks to his wife Mary who, it would appear, is buried his back yard, her simple marker surrounded by lights that set off the garden seat on which he sits, each night, with his whiskey, talking over his day. She died in a hit and run. He doesn’t know who was responsible. And dead though she might be, he still needs her to make sense of what’s going on in his head. He rants and raves at her, imploring her to help him out, to give him a sign that she’s listening.

IMG_6600 (800x693)I was reminded of the cemeteries I visited in Oslo. They, too, have their garden seats but unlike the Jewish cemetery here in Budapest, the plots are well tended. Every single one of them. Without exception. People haven’t forgotten. Perhaps it’s a municipal effort. Perhaps it’s not left to the families of those who have passed. Perhaps it’s a community effort. I don’t know. My Norwegian is worse than my Hungarian.

IMG_6589 (800x600)For me, how people treat their children, their aged, and their dead speaks volumes about their humanity. Oslo has impressed me on so many levels that perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. But this degree of year-round care, from wherever it comes from, was like a breath of fresh air.

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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The bliss of solitude

My short-term memory is worsening by the day. My long-term memory isn’t much better. I find myself having vague recollections of events and conversations rather than my usual  chapter and verse. I’m getting older. That’s a given. And with each advancing year, something else gives.

In the midst of all this self-induced angst, I was heartened to recall some lines from a poem I learned in secondary school. From Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud. I was in Terezín in the Czech Republic last weekend when they wove their way back into my brain:

When oft upon my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon my inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.

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Down by the Ohre river, there’s a pietní místo – a pious place – with signs showing what not to do. No swimming. No sunbathing. The why of it all became clearer as we approached the monument. It was here, in November 1944, that the Nazis ordered the ashes of 22 000 Jews – all victims from the Terezín ghetto – to be dumped in the water. Hard to imagine. Hard to get my head around those sorts of numbers, that sort of volume. It was made even more surreal because in my bag, I had a small urn with just 5% of Lori’s ashes which I would scatter later from the Charles Bridge in Prague. Now, math has never been my strongest suit, but even so, I still couldn’t get a grip on the magnitude of what had happened here.

IMG_2932 (590x800)The death rate in the ghetto was high. Records show that 22% of internees died there – about 30 000. At first they were buried locally – the first 1250 in individual graves, and then 217 in mass graves. But towards the end of 1942, the cremations started. The ashes of some 8000 or so are still in urns at the local crematorium. The remains of the other 22 000 have settled in the silt or floated away.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like in 1944, in November. I can’t imagine the logistics, the affect on the water, the sheer volume of ash that had to be disposed of. And while I was struggling to come to terms with all of this, I kept going back to the sign that said no swimming, no sunbathing. And I wondered why anyone would have to be told not to.

IMG_2929 (598x800)It defies reason. The lines from Wordsworth came flooding back – in vacant or in pensive mood – because everything about this place leaned towards pensive. It was eerily silent. No noise. No birds. Even the water was quiet. Despite the intervening 70 years or so, there is still a heavy presence that challenges thought and defies speech. And when we did speak, we spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the spirit of the place. Although it was the 29th of March, snow still covered the ground and the signs of spring had yet to appear.

IMG_2934 (600x800)I wondered what it might be like in summer. Would people picnic here? Would mothers sit by the river bank as they watched they kids playing? Would courting couples come to get away from it all? Or is it indeed a pious place where people would show the dutiful respect required by definition, where they would come to sit in silence and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man and how it makes countless thousands mourn? I wondered, too, which would be best – should we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us with gaiety and laughter, showing them that they did not die in vain, or should we be sombre and silent? Can we be happy and still remember, or do those memories weigh us down and make us sad. What does a dutiful respect require? And what would they have wanted?

I mentally compared the gaily decorated graves I found in Hawaii which lie in stark contrast to the Jewish cemetery in Budapest and wondered what I’d prefer. I remembered years ago visiting the concentration camp at Dachau and being horrified at some tourists who had dared to laugh in the face of such atrocities. I found myself leaning towards piety.  In the midst of the manic lives we lead, alongside the constant push to do and be done to, we need the time, the space, and indeed the opportunity to remember. Perhaps bliss is not quite the right word for this occasion Mr Wordsworth. As I searched my memory banks for something more suitable, I hit upon the line from John Donne’s poem Death and agree that

…from thee [death] much more must flow.