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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.

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.