I love cemeteries. I didn’t pay them much attention while living in the United States, visiting them only when attending the graveside service following a funeral. Then I would have passing thoughts such as, “It looks peaceful,” or “Hmm, interesting,” or “Everything looks the same. How will I ever find my loved one in this maze of grey headstones and green grass?” It seemed as if cemeteries were often set on the edge of town or out of the way. Practically speaking, I realize they take up a lot of space on valuable land so it doesn’t make sense to place them on prime real estate in the middle of town – unless they are next to a church. But when they are out of the way, are they also out of our thoughts? Easily forgotten? An ‘out of sight out of mind’ sort of thing?
I find cemeteries in Europe to be fascinating beautiful works of art. When driving through villages, there is often a directional sign to the cemetery. It is an important part of village life and many are living memorials to the deceased.
There is a cemetery behind my house. Someone once said to me, “Good neighbors!” So true; the residents of the cemetery are very quiet! 😉 However, this cemetery is a beehive of constant, yet quiet, activity. As long as it isn’t raining or bitterly cold, there are people tending the gravesites, which are miniature gardens. Some have potted plants, but many have flowers, plants, bushes and even the occasional tree planted at the site. Rarely are there cut flowers. On Christmas Eve, the cemetery flickered with dozens of burning candles, leading me to conclude that the living visited their loved ones before attending Mass on this Holy Night. It was a quiet beauty in the darkness that cannot be captured on camera. (Well, not my little ‘point and shoot’ pocket camera, at any rate.)
Garden shops, home improvement stores, discount department superstores like Wal-Mart (except it’s called Real), and even the local grocery all carry candles specifically intended to be used at a gravesite. They are pillar candles about 3” in diameter and 7” high in a (often red) sleeve. They come with a metal cover which has cross-shaped cutouts allowing the smoke to escape. These are designed to be lit and left unattended similar to the Eternal Flame in the church. At the gravesite, the candles often sit in an iron and glass-enclosed lantern. Many of these same shops also carry other items such as seasonal floral arrangements and décor designed to adorn a gravesite.
One afternoon, from inside my home, I heard the stately music of a brass ensemble. Upon further investigation, I discovered musicians surrounding a gravesite and realized this was the graveside service for someone recently deceased. Had the deceased been a member of the village band? Were they an important member of the village? Does everyone warrant a brass ensemble at the graveside service? Much later I visited this gravesite and it was covered with brightly colored fresh flowers. I have since noticed other graves covered with mounds of fresh flowers; they too are recently deceased. I wonder how long the fresh flowers will adorn the grave; it has already been weeks past internment.
A few gravesites have a simple wooden cross engraved with the name as well as the dates of birth and death. But the vast majority have a granite headstone. Is a wooden cross used until a granite stone is purchased or is a wooden cross preferred by some?
My village is over one thousand years old! While I haven’t found any headstones that old, I have gained a sense of the history of my village as I wander through the cemetery. There are a couple of family names repeated throughout leading me to believe these are longtime residents with deep roots – no pun intended! 😉 One of the names is still displayed on various businesses throughout the village. It is likely that many of these graves are so lovingly well-tended because the family still lives nearby. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the cemeteries in the United States have a different atmosphere; we are such a transient society that we no longer live where we were born or where we grew up. Therefore, we don’t live near the cemetery where our loved ones rest.
I watch the sunrise over the cemetery and marvel at the beauty the shadows cast through the trees and onto the headstones while other mornings there is a fog that is just as breathtaking as it weaves around the trees and headstones.
Along the cemetery there is a well-used walking path. Every morning I walk my dog on this path and even though we meet other dog-walkers, power-walkers, runners or bikers there is an overarching sense of serenity. It is the perfect beginning to the day.