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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.

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.