This gray, rainy Sunday made me think of graveyards, I’m not sure why. I have this love-hate relationship with them, you see. I hate to think about the degradation of the flesh and that sort of thing, but, on the other hand, I’m drawn to the names and dates on the headstones.
Who were they? What kind of life did they live? What happened to them? Were they happy? I like to romanticize what I read about the deceased. But I can only do that with old graves; the older, the better. One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit old churches, which usually have a graveyard attached. I enjoy the peace and quiet and they are generally surrounded by beautiful gardens.
When we lived in Jersey (as in the Channel Islands, not “Joisy” in the US), I would visit each parish church and read the headstones. There were wives who outlived their husbands, beloved husbands who perished at sea, maiden aunts who died in the prime of youth, brave sons who died in battle. All this happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, which made me feel comfortable reading, I think, because it put more distance between us. I don’t think I can do it with recent graves.
Visiting cemeteries can also become a learning experience. A couple of years ago, my parents and I visited the town of Capilla del Señor, about one and a half hours northwest of Buenos Aires (Argentina). The oldest part of the local cemetery has graves that date back to the 1860s. Interestingly, many of the headstones were written in English or in French because of the many Irish and French settlers in the area. There were also reminders of the terrible yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the country in the early 1870s: a whole family was buried there who died in the span of one week and a mass grave of the fever’s victims.
Another learning experience for me was visiting the Anglican church at Millbrook (St. Helier, Jersey). This church is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. From a distance, I saw what I thought was a garden feature made with rocks. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a four thousand year old Neolithic passage grave. How fantastic is it that I was able to see something I’d only read about in books! My inner nerd was doing cartwheels.
So far, the most moving experience I’ve had in a cemetery (outside of funerals I’ve attended) was visiting the American War Cemetery in Omaha Beach, Normandy (France). Although I have no ties with World War II since neither my country nor my ancestors took part in it, the endless sea of white crosses was a sobering sight that brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help mourning the monumental waste of young lives (it was necessary, I know, but still). On a frivolous note, this is where the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was shot.
Do you like to visit old or historic cemeteries as well?