It started off as a very solemn occasion. On a visit home I decided to look up the family graves. My children were just old enough to be a little apprehensive about visiting a cemetery. My mother wasn’t keen, but humoured me, adamant that she knew exactly where to find the family “plot”. She didn’t.
At the first cemetery we were a little awed by so much emptiness. The fresh wreaths were sad, the dead flowers depressing. We spoke in hushed tones and tiptoed round the sacred mounds.
By the time we got to the third cemetery things had changed. Gravestones held no more terrors. The children leapfrogged over railings, chasing each other round the more ancient monuments. We began to enjoy our meanderings under the cypresses. Instead of a sad search, the outing became a kind of family romp as the chances of finding the family graves became ever more remote.
Each cemetery had a tale of its own, reflecting floods, subsidence, the changes in funeral fashions over the decades. I began to study the headstones, marvelling at the stories they revealed: the flu epidemic of the early 1900s, the different wars, nurses, soldiers, sweethearts, children, parents, fresh flowers at old graves, old flowers at new ones, the rich, the poor, the pillars of the community. It was no longer sad, just a reflection of society much as you’d find in any museum. I suspect the dead were glad to have us around.
It made me wonder how we could popularise cemeteries, encourage people to “use” them rather than avoiding them. There is something beautiful about old and weathered stone and trees, yet we relegate these special places and their memories to caretakers and hobos.
Isn’t collective memory important? When I finally gave up looking for my “own” graves and “found” all those others, I vicariously “remembered” people I never knew. Rather than leave bunches of flowers that wither and die, we could plant bulbs and corms to introduce a little colour, and turn the graveyard into some kind of community garden rather than an arid impersonal wilderness.
If I’d brought flowers with me on that day so long ago, I like to think I would have left them on the oldest most “unloved” grave that I could find.