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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)

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.