True till the end

I’ve often wondered where the bitches and the bastards are buried. Those nasty people who beat their spouses, molest their kids, kill their mates. In all the cemeteries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a gravestone marked with ‘Here lies the b______, may they rot in hell’ or even anything approximating it. I have seen some that offer just the opening and closing dates of a life with nothing extra, and perhaps this was because those burying the corpse had nothing good to say about it. Perhaps. What’s that old adage? If you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all?

IMG_2887 (800x600)IMG_2879 (800x600)None of this was on my mind as I visited a cemetery in the heart of Geneva. Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, is near the Plainpalais and not all that easy to find. I had to ask four people before I found someone who could direct me  (mind you, that could be a reflection of my pathetic French pronunciation!). But find it I did, eventually. It’s a lovely oasis in the heart of a built-up, lived-in neighbourhood, a walled-in park where people come to sit and chat and have a picnic lunch. This was a little at odds with the Geneva I thought I knew and, not for the first time, I found myself revisiting the opinion I’ve formed of the city.

IMG_2870 (800x600)IMG_2871 (600x800)Home to such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges and John Calvin, former presidents, and a palette of artists of various forms, the cemetery is populated with simple headstones that lack the sculptor-ish wows, of say, Milan or Zagreb. And yet they are quite remarkable in their simplicity and their natural form.

Many are without accolade, opting for the sparsest of biographical detail – born, died, and spent the time in between painting, or writing, or whoring – or all three.  Yes, that one surprised me, too. And I was equally touched to see fresh flowers on Ms Real’s grave and two young men in attendance. Whether they knew her or not, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they, too, were moved by the honesty of the inscription, moved enough to weed and water and pay homage to a woman who knew exactly who she was. Or then again, perhaps she had no say in the inscription and some bitter ex-husband or grieving family took their parting shot. That’s the wonder of the dead – they can’t contradict the stories I choose to make up in my head. No wonder I find them such good company.

IMG_2886 (800x600)IMG_2873 (800x600)Five years of French were called into play as I tried to decipher what might be described as the anomaly – the one with the full-on testament to a life well lived. I read and re-read the inscription, picking out words that I was relatively certain I understood and then trying to make sense of what went in between. I thought it rather lovely, and for the millionth time wondered what would be said about me when I’m gone. Then again, I’m nearly at the point where I’m opting for cremation and ash scattering, so that might no longer be all that relevant.

IMG_2882 (800x600)IMG_2878 - Copy (600x800)Cemeteries are wonderful places in which to take stock of life. To stop for a while and get off the incessant treadmill that is twenty-first-century living. To reflect on what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why you’re bothering. Occasionally, you meet some honesty, some real truth. More often you see memories inscribed on stone, memories that might well be a case of remembering the best and ignoring the worst. And in some cases, as in Geneva, you simply get the facts. The bare facts.

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4 replies
  1. ola66
    ola66 says:

    Hmmm…………..I think that we are back to that question of who is the gravestone for…………not sure that it makes much difference to the occupant of the grave whatever creed or colour although I suppose that we would all like to be remembered in some way. The people who spend the money and erect the gravestones are unlikely to do it for someone they hated and disliked and as such they are likely to want the inscription (and the monument design) to reflect the person that they wanted to be associated with……….leaving out the bits that don’t fit that reflection. Perhaps the most honest of those in your pictures is the simple cross.

    There is always a part of me, that whilst interested in them, gets annoyed when I see an extravagant monument within a church for some nobleman/woman or a ‘high up’ in the church hierarchy………what makes them more worthy than the poor church goer who has to lie outside.

    In a monestry a dead monk is usually buried wrapped in a cloth in an unmarked grave, future burials are very lightly to be buried on top of him……….not sure that I am very keen on that but it is a another way of looking at the disposal of a dead body.

    Your comment on ‘some honesty, some real truth’ strikes a chord ……….if we can’t have that, at least at the end of our lives, then what does that really say about us?


    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Admit that it doesn’t much matter when we’re gone what anyone has to say about us – and so many of those grand monuments to people were built methinks by the people themselves in some hope of immortality.

  2. Jim Glasgow
    Jim Glasgow says:

    For many years now I have felt that funerals are for the living, the efforts taken are to help us cope with our feelings of loss and grief. But, I too have often wondered as to the words on my gravestone, would those who cared for me be able to set a few words in stone to account for the time I spent on the planet, can a few words encompass a life, maybe so, maybe not, would I write them beforehand in a narcissistic last grasp at notoriety,( as Breaker Morant said, “ we poets do crave immortality”) will I have a large headstone, or will I lie in a paupers grave, so I have opted for my ashes to be mixed with cement and cast into a soccer ball with a small stainless steel plate and time shared between our kids, left in the yard, hopefully for some poor innocent child to stub their toe and swear, if we can’t find humour in all aspects of life then we are set for a sad and worrisome course.
    But, better than a headstone would be a figure or statue which would give the living an impression of who and what we were. I feel this would be a far better way to summarise a life than a few words. My favourite would be the statue erected to Emile Jacob Schindler, painter and father of Alma, wife of Gustav Mahler the composer. No, I’m not name dropping to impress readers with my cultural learned-ness. I know very little of classical painting and music, but this is the point of my ramblings. I would love posterity to remember me like this. How relaxed and contented does he look?
    Anyhow, I have rambled enough. Mary, keep the posts coming. They are fantastically interesting. Jacobs statue is in the Stadtpark in Vienna, if you get the chance, check it out, I will if I ever get to Vienna.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Thanks for the tip, Jim – will definitely check it out when I’m next in Vienna. What a laid-back pose. Like the idea of the concrete football. Guaranteed immortality with all that toe-stubbing. Am leaning towards leaving what money I have, along with my ashes, to the fittest of my friends (or my nephews, if they show any interest in travel) and asking them to scatter me in places I didn’t get to see. When I was thinking of headstones, I reckon a statue of someone reading, like the one I saw in Zagreb a better summary indeed than anything words could convey.


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