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Prostrate with grief

In Milan a couple of weeks ago, I was a little taken aback to see a woman, lying prostrate on a grave, her grief palpable, her sorrow tangible. Coming from a country that would rival Britain in its stoicism at times, such public displays of emotion are not what I’m used to.

IMG_0297 (600x800)IMG_0287 (800x599)IMG_0289 (800x597)I’ve been introduced as a cemetery tourist by a friend in Malta. And yes, my fascination with how we remember our dead and mark their passing is one I’ve readily acknowledged. That said, I’ve managed to get this far in  life without ever laying eyes on a corpse, despite the numerous funerals I’ve been to. And being from a people who wake their dead at home – this is odd in more ways than one. I just can’t bring myself to look upon a corpse. A body emptied of its soul is something beyond my otherwise virile imagination.

The simplest and most moving cemetery I’ve been to is the Bernadinu kapines in Vilnius, Lithuania. The most different perhaps the Alifakovac cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most educational (for me) has to be Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, Ireland. And, up until now, perhaps the most impressive cemetery I’ve been to in terms of sculpture was the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia. But Mirogoj has relinquished its No. 1 spot to the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano.

IMG_0301 (800x600)IMG_0293 (800x598) (2)Up to 1861, Milan had many small cemeteries scattered around the city. After Italian independence, a decision was made to consolidate them into two: one for the upper echelons of society and another for those whom fame and fortune had bypassed: Cimitero Monumentale and Cimitero Maggiore, respectively. What started as an 18 hectare expanse, taking three years to lay out, Cimitero Monumentale now occupies 25 hectares of this Italian city.

IMG_0295 (800x597)Wandering its paths is like walking through a virtual who’s who of Italian creative aristocracy featuring such luminaries as poet Salvatore Quasimodo, composer Giuseppe Verdi, and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Names like Pirelli and Campari all ring bells of vague recollection, testifying to the longevity of Italian business empires.

IMG_0314 (800x591)To my mind, cemeteries are some of the best museums out there and don’t get the recognition they deserve. Anyone with a love for Italian art won’t be disappointed. The works of Giannino Castiglioni, Giacomo Manzù, Medardo Rosso, Leonardo Bistolfi, Ernesto Bazzaro, Odoardo Tabacchi, Adolfo Wildt and Argentine artist Lucio Fontana are all represented. Don’t make the mistake we made: come early and plan on staying for a few hours. There is so much to see and marvel at that you won’t feel the time passing before the siren marking 30 minutes to closing sounds and the man on his bike does his rounds to make sure that all living souls leave before the gates close.
IMG_0331 (800x600)IMG_0300 (800x599)While there are many beautiful monuments to be seen, what struck me was how the grieving woman was depicted, time and time again. It’s something I’ve not noticed in other cemeteries – at least not to the same extent. And their numbers made the absence of grieving men even more remarkable. There’s a thesis to be written on that. If you’re in Milan and have time, it’s worth dropping by. No. Scratch that. If you’re in Milan and don’t have time, it’s worth making time for. IMG_0291 (800x599)

Moses: whereabouts unknown

Nabi Mosa mosque is said to be a sacred place for Muslims because it is here that the prophet Moses is supposedly buried – mind you, that, like much else in the region, is subject to debate.

IMG_8226 (800x595)IMG_8215 (600x800)The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well travelled by Mediterranean Arabs on their way to Mecca. Nabi Mosa is situation at what would have been the end of the first day’s walk. Nearby Mount Nebo is where Moses was thought to be buried back then – his ‘move’ to to Mosque is thought to be a matter of invention. The current building was completed in the late 1400s and restored by the Ottoman Turks in 1820. It’s now home to a treatment centre for addicts.

IMG_8227 (800x600)To give the local Muslims something to celebrate while their Christian counterparts were celebrating Easter, the Ottomans instituted a seven-day religious festival called Nabi Mosa. Thousands of Muslims would gather in Jerusalem and make the trip to the mosque where they’d celebrate for  days before returning home. When Jordan took over the administration of the West Bank after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the festival was more or less cancelled.

IMG_8237 (800x592)IMG_8236 (800x594)In the shadows outside the mosque lies an old cemetery. The ground is rock solid and I can’t begin to imagine how anyone would dig a grave. This probably accounts for the raised grave sites. The inscriptions meant nothing to me and I can’t find any account of it anywhere so it’s difficult to tell how old it is. Graves seemed to be scattered around rather than laid out in any particular order reflecting the chaos that seems to be so innate to life in Palestine.  and in the heat of the sun, miles from anywhere, the place had a serene and saintly feel to it. We were the only ones at the monastery and I was the only one in the cemetery. For the first time in days, I felt like I was communing with something other than commercialism. And I actually took the time to pray.

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Touching coffins

There are more people buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin that are currently alive in the city. I heard that on Saturday and it still hasn’t sunk in: 1.5 million dead vs 1.3 million alive.  A tour of the cemetery has been on my list of things to do for years and finally, thanks to the ever-on-the-ball MN, I got to cross it off my list and may well have changed my life in the process.

IMG_7267 (600x800)Dominated by a large round tower – the tallest in the country – it’s home to many a famous Irish man and woman. The round tower, in fact, is the headstone on Daniel O’Connell’s grave and for those of you who are not familiar with the man Dan, there are those who believe that he discovered Ireland.

IMG_7183 (800x600)We share the same birthday – 6 August – but he was born into aristocracy in 1775 on the opposite side of Ireland, in Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Despite having money, the family’s belief in Catholicism stood against them and denied them the status and influence their bank  balance would normally provide.  After stints in college, Daniel went to Lincoln’s Inn, London, and then to King’s Inn,  Dublin, where he studied for the bar. Qualifying in 1798, he was at this stage   fully committed to religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, democracy and the separation of Church and State.

At home, he was seen as a bit of  radical and despite his involvement in the United Irishmen, they themselves inspired by the French Revolution, O’Connell believed that the Irish were not sufficiently enlightened to hear the sun of freedom [An aside: when I read this, I remembered a Hungarian friend telling me in before the last elections that Hungary wasn’t ready for democracy – the parallels continue]. He was all for change, but advocated change within and through the system.

Fast forward to 1815 when O’Connell was probably the most successful barrister in the country and leader of the Catholic Emancipation movement. In 1823, he along with a couple of others, started the Catholic Association and had the brainwave to swell its ranks by offering annual membership for just a shilling. Their aim: to have the Act of Union repealed, to bring an end to Irish tithe system, to bring about universal suffrage, and to see a secret ballot for parliamentary elections. Despite being elected to government, O’Connell couldn’t take his seat in London in Parliament because he was Catholic. But he was a crowd-puller. It is thought that three-quarters of a million people gathered on the hill of Tara to hear the man they called the Liberator.

In 1841 he became the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin and continued to fight to have the Act of Union repealed, yet he would die in Genoa in March of 1847 without doing so. On his last trip to Rome, he visited Paris where he was touted as the most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe.  He never made it to Rome and on his deathbed is reported to have said My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to Heaven. Whether or not he meant this literally is a mystery but those who heard him decided to grant his wish. His heart was removed and sent to Rome to the Irish College while the rest of him was shipped back to Glasnevin cemetery, the country’s first non-denominational cemetery which he had started back in 1832. Apparently, his heart went missing about 110 years ago…

IMG_7186 (800x583)IMG_7194 (800x600)O’Connell’s coffin sits in a crypt beneath the round tower. Holes in the marble casing allow you to reach in and touch the coffin, which is supposed to bring good luck. (Yet again, I’m fascinated by our ability as a people to conjure good luck out of anything from the combination of a black cat and an ambulance to repeated numbers on a digital clock.) Touch it I did, and more than once. In fact, had the opportunity presented itself and were good luck guaranteed, I’d have gotten into the coffin beside him.

IMG_7188 (800x600)His family and their first born are also entitled to a space in the crypt… in a side room, stacked on top of each other in lead-lined caskets. Lead creates a seal, a vacuum of sorts, that preserves bodies and as hair continues to grow long after we die, one can only imagine the state the family would be in now.  In what might seem as an effort on behalf of history to rewrite itself, O’Connell’s coffin is 9 feet long – while the man himself was reportedly much, much, much shorter.

IMG_7210 (800x600)Even in death, O’Connell still presides over the cemetery where 800 000 bodies lie in unmarked graves. Vast expanses of innocent-looking lawns cover mass graves where bodies were buried regardless of religious or political beliefs. One can imagine the conversations …

The ABC of ABQ

IMG_5962 (800x600) (2)Back when I was working in a peroxide plant in Longview, Washington, I decided to move. It wasn’t the smell from the paper mill across the road or the fact that everyone in town knew me as ‘the Irish girl from Willow Grove’ and knew my business to boot. It was that a sense of needing to be somewhere else. It was a toss-up between Alaska and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alaska won. But for years I’ve been curious about what I missed.

Albuquerque (known locally as ABQ) is one of the oldest inland cities in the USA. And at a height of 5314 feet (higher than then highest mountain (and yes, I use that term advisedly) in Ireland, it’s the highest city on the US mainland. Amongst its many credits is that it hosts the largest hot air balloon competition in the world each year, festivities that draw more than 1.5 million spectators (and something that has now made it onto my lengthening bucket list). I’m glad I didn’t move there because the sun shines 310 days a year on average (who’s counting?) and I don’t do well in the heat.

IMG_5935 (800x600) (2)One of the most important questions you’ll be asked as a tourist is ‘red or green’ and if you haven’t done your homework you might not know that this refers to your choice of red or green chiles. Budapest might have its wine festivals and the new wine bar that’s opened just around the corner from me boasts a choice of vino és wonka (wine or chocolate), but ABQ hosts New Mexico’s wine and chile festival on Memorial weekend. Now that’s a combination that isn’t at all tempting.

Its old town square isn’t quite as overrun with budding artisans as that of Santa Fe, but it’s a lovely spot nonetheless. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that a battle of preferences rages, one quite similar to the one between Budapest and Vienna, with these two New Mexico cities creating division between their admirers. Some said that, given the choice between the two, ABQ won hands down over Santa Fe. Others said the opposite. No one stayed silent. I’m still undecided. The heat does that to me. It addles my brain to the point that decisions are difficult to make.

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IMG_5950 (800x600)ABQ is the oldest farming community in the USA, home to the Pueblo Indians. It’s also the geographical centre of New Mexico. And it’s charming. Despite the tourists and the heat and the hawkers, there’s something still pure about it, something untouched, something that has escaped the commercialisation of Santa Fe. Its history can be read on the murals on the walls of the restaurants lining the old town square. Its church, an adobe building with walls that are five feet thick, still functions as a reminder of the Spanish colonial tradition of anchoring a central square with a place of worship.

IMG_5954 (600x800)Again, it was refreshing to see local artisans selling their wares from blankets in the shaded archways of the main square. It was good, also, to see small cafés and food joints in the back streets, making what had to be a relatively meagre living from the not-so-passing trade but smiling nonetheless. Maybe it’s the laid-back Spanish influence, that little bit of Mediterranean attitude in the desert. Or it could have simply been heat-induced lethargy. No matter. It was all so very relaxed.

But even more enthralling than the white towers of the old church building that rise like beacons into the skies was a little church we passed on the way into town, one that opens for mass once a week, on Saturday, at 4pm. Some miles outside the city limits, it sits alone on a hill by the side of the road, a living testimony to the missionary work done in the states back in the 1700s. It’s beautiful. We had to climb a locked gate to get in (a sad indictment of the state of society) and while there, I was enthralled by the local custom of surround graves with what, for all the world, looks like a bed frame. I thought it peculiar to this little cemetery, but noticed it again as we drove further into New Mexico.

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IMG_5924 (800x600) (2)Apparently this had something to do with the widespread poverty in New Mexico that led to the rather innovative use of everyday items as grave-markers. I came across this fascinating account of famous and unusual grave-sites in New Mexico’s history. Worth a read if, like me, you have a thing about burial sites.

ABQ – I’m glad I didn’t move there. But then again, I’d be happy to return. When it’s cooler and there are thousands of balloons in the sky.

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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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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.

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