Category Archives: Cemeteries

Pop culture or traditional culture?

The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart opens in Marrakesh. Ten years later, in 1966, Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! with Tony Randall and Senta Berger, is part comedy and complete guide to what’s worth seeing in the city.  Even the Absolutely Fab pair spent an episode there. Spielberg filmed Raiders of the Lost Ark in the city in 1981; Scorsese followed in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Stone topped it in 2004 with Alexander.

Walking through the narrow, windy streets of the Medina, I half-expected to see someone running from someone else. Car chases would be mad. Motorbike chases  a possibility. But the old reliable on foot dodge-em would be perfect. It’s hard to get a sense of city scape. But I’d imagine that viewed from above, it would be a different story entirely.

Kasbah Mosque

Kasbah Mosque

The Saadian Tombs date back to the sixteenth century, but lay hidden for years and years and years until 1917 when they were rediscovered during an aerial survey of the city by the French. Located in the Kasbah, next to the mosque, a pathway was built to access them and the grounds reclaimed. Architecturally, they are a fine example of  mosaic work and inlay.
IMG_2220 (800x600)It’s thought thIMG_2226 (600x800)at they were sealed back at the turn of the eighteenth century when Moulay Ismail was in power. Having destroyed the Badai Palace next door, word has it that superstition intervened and rather than destroying the tombs and risking the wrath of those who had gone before him, Ismail just sealed it all up leaving just one entrance, a well hidden one, open from the Kasbah Mosque.

For two hundred years or so, the dead rested in peace, undisturbed by clicking cameras or littering tourists. Today, it’s a sight to be seen if you’re in Marrakesh – and, in fact, it was the only one we visited on purpose. [I have a thing for cemeteries.]

IMG_2231 (800x754)IMG_2224 (600x800)Sixty-six tombs are housed in the two main mausoleums with another 100 or so graves in the gardens, including, interestingly, a few Jewish ones. The dead are mostly princes or members of the various royal households, their elevated status probably reflected in the brilliance of the mosaic and the intricate carvings of excerpts from the Qu’ran. It’s quite something really. And while you might be shoulder to shoulder with someone as you try to get a peek inside, it still manages to retain that sense of quiet, that air of solemnity.

It’s an ongoing restoration, a painstakingly slow one, a lot of which is done by hand. Just last month I saw something similar going on with tombs in Hyderabad – hand chisels and hand work. And even watching that process is fascinating, in and of itself. It made me wish that I had paid more attention to pronunciation in French class – I might have been able to ask some questions. [Are mosaic artists good at doing jigsaws?]

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IMG_2234 (600x800)The walls outside, the shared walls with whatever is next door, are a maze of pigeon nests. It’s hard to know whether they are old bullet holes or mortar holes or whether, as in Malta, they were made with pigeons in mind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows more? But perhaps as much as anything else, I was impressed by the tri-lingual write-up in the square outside, written in the first person, as if the square was talking about itself and the sights around it. A new one for me and one that I’d like to see catch on.

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When talent lives on

I was in Paris many moons ago and didn’t care for it much. I have only vague recollections of being there, no lasting memories other than a rather poor impression of the city and its people. This has been fed over the years by the somewhat stereotypical generality that all Parisians are rude and arrogant and not at all helpful.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and I found myself back in Paris again. Getting off the airport bus at Montparnasse, we went in search of the metro. It took us an age. Navigating the ticket machine took longer. Long enough for the old feelings to resurface to the point where I was cursing under my breath and wondering why I’d ever thought the city deserved a second chance.

IMG_6315 (800x600)Later that afternoon, having decided to spend the following day hopping on and off a tour bus, we went to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. I quite fancied spending a couple of hours amongst the dead. The list of interned is impressive with so many talented people lying beneath stone slabs that it was just a little surreal. The cemetery itself, all 110 acres, is a warren that is difficult to navigate, even with a map, section as it is into divisions that apply a numbering system that defeats any logic I’m familiar with. But we had helpers, elderly people who were happy to guide us to where we wanted to go, all the while chatting away in French, oozing friendliness, asking if we’d read this person or that, and suggesting famous French artists of whom we’d never heard. They put paid to my long-held belief about Parisian arrogance. They couldn’t have been nicer.

IMG_6319 (600x800)Jim Morrison was on the list, not because I would recognise a single song he sang, but because I have very fond memories of working with a German friend in San Diego who thought he was the closest thing to God on Earth. His was the only grave with a police guard. He died of a suspected heroin overdose in a bath tub in Paris at the all too young age of 27. Morrison made the news again last year when Marianne Faithful said in an interview that he had been accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps only Morrison knows what really happened. Many of those who had come to visit and to leave their tokens of remembrance weren’t even live when The Doors were all the rage, suggesting, to this fanciful mind at least, that it is through music and the arts that we can best achieve immortality.

IMG_6350 (800x600)IMG_6352 (591x800)As we wandered up and down the footpaths, we spotted famous names that rang a bell with me. I knew of Marcel Proust but unlike my more literary companion, the well-read EZ, I could remember reading nothing by him. À la recherche du temps perdu rang a bell,  as she ran down a list of his novels that she had read, but aside from a vague stirring that I might have waded through that for my Leaving Cert French, I felt nothing. A quotation of his to do with the real voyage of discovery being not seeking new landscapes but seeing with new eyes fluttered to the edge of my subconscious but didn’t get any farther.  I did remember Balzac though, and the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but had forgotten that he didn’t actually write it. And I know I saw the movie, too. Shame on me. I resolved, on the spot, to brush up on my classics at some stage in the next twenty years – such ignorance is embarrassing.

IMG_6335 (800x600)IMG_6367 (600x800)Edith Piaf I recognised of course. How much of that is due to the fact that when I first came to Budapest, I was a semi-regular at the club called after her. I couldn’t swear that I knew of her existence before then though. I’d like to think I did, but hand on my heart, I’m not at all sure.

Frédéric Chopin, I knew, too. How could I not, after seven painstaking years of practising the piano, struggling up through Grade 8 at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and today not able to play anything other than the opening bars of Scott Joplin’s, The Entertainer. Coincidentally, working on a book this week, I read that during WWII, Nazi propagandists falsified biographies of favoured Polish composers so that they could ignore the ban on performances of Polish music. Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland, declared that ‘Friedrich Schopping was a genius and hence could not have been Polish. He was the finest composer born in German lands.’ How history can rewrite itself. Chopin died in Paris of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

IMG_6341 (800x600)IMG_6338 (600x800)My saviour that day though was Oscar Wilde. Him I knew. Him I could quote. Him I had read. I hadn’t realised though that his tomb had caused such controversy. The sphinx’s missing testicles are said to be serving as a paperweight somewhere. A glass barrier was erected in 2011 to deter people from kissing the stone (in a nod to Wilde’s thought that ‘a kiss may ruin a human life’) and leaving an imprint, a fashionable trend that upset the tomb’s guardians, the lipstick apparently eroding the stone. It’s an odd piece, with a fascinating story. And while many have tried (and failed) to read some Oscar into what the sculptor had in mind, at least the epitaph pays tribute to one of his greatest works – the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

IMG_6332 (800x600)IMG_6363 (600x800)A grave that stopped me in my sentimental tracks was that of Bernard Verhlac, one of the French cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year. His was a far more recent death not brought about by disease or old age or risky living. His was a life cut short so randomly as to make no sense at all.

There’s a part of me that believes we choose the lives our souls need to live to learn the lessons we need to learn or serve a purpose we need to serve and we get to do it repeatedly. But that said, sometimes it’s beyond why… so far beyond that perhaps the only rejoinder is ‘why not?’

Père Lachaise is a beautiful spot to while away an afternoon and recalibrate. A place to remember that the world is full of talented people, each making a difference in their own way. Not all of us have to make centre stage and be immortalised in prose or verse or vinyl. The rest of us are simply those other people.

I am determined to get around to catching up on my classics, but until I do, I take comfort in Wilde’s position that

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught

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Back by popular demand

Modesty aside, I think I have a fairly decent vocabulary. I can’t lay claim to knowing every word in the dictionary but I could make an educated guess at the meaning of most. Yet I’d never heard of a charnel house. Char I could do, but charnel?

IMG_6153 (800x600)IMG_6154 (721x800)Last week, in Naples, I visited a massive charnel house and didn’t even know I was in one until I’d left. Back in the day, when cemetery space was in short supply, it was common practice to bury bodies for a  few years to let them decompose and then dig them up and move their bones to a charnel house where they’d take up far less room. In Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, a 30 000 square metre cave in the hillside was once home to eight million of such bones. Today it’s thought that the remains of about 40 000 lie here but for the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could count.

IMG_6195 (800x600)The original inhabitants had been relocated from cemeteries in the city in the sixteenth century to make room for those who insisted on being buried in their local church grounds – now there’s a different take on eviction. With the Great Plague of 1656, thousands more were added to the displaced. A century later, a great flood washed many of the bones out onto the streets  (has a movie been made of it yet I wonder?). In the nineteenth century, it was officially named a pauper’s cemetery and its  last big influx was provided by cholera victims of the 1837 epidemic.

IMG_6161 (800x600)IMG_6172 (800x600)IMG_6178 (800x600)The bones are anonymous – rows and rows of skulls sit atop stacks of femurs and tibia, and stare back at you. I fancied I saw holes in some that suggested bullet wounds but it might well have been damage done in transit. It is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been – and I’ve been to a fair few cemeteries in my time.

Some have names carved into boxes but these may not match the bones inside. Apparently a cult took shape in the late 1800s when it was fashionable to adopt a IMG_6174 (800x600)skull and give it a name, a name that was often transmitted to the adopter through a dream. They would come to pray to their skulls and make offerings in the hope of having favours granted. The cult of the  anime pezzentelle (abandoned souls) lasted into the late 1960s when the city’s Cardinal Ursi had enough. What might to those involved have seemed like caring for people in death who had no one to look after them in life, was branded a fetish and the cemetery was closed. It was renovated a few years ago and is now open to the public. Back by popular demand ….

IMG_6199 (800x600)It’s hard to find though so if you’re in Naples and curious, take Line 1 metro to Materdei. Walk down the hill and around the corner to the left. Half-way along that street there are steps going down even more. Take these to the bottom and turn left. When you get to the small piazza, hang left and the cave is just past the church (worth a visit – a lovely change from the ostentation of the bigger city churches) on your left. Free entry. Open 9-4pm.

 

Eternal rest?

I’ve heard tell that Muslims are buried standing up. And the Muslim cemeteries I have been to would suggest the same. I did some digging and while there’s a wealth of information available on various websites and blogs, it is often contradictory.

IMG_4329 (800x600)From what I can gather, as soon as you die,  your eyes are closed, your jaw is bound, and you’re covered with a sheet. It’s a quick burial – before the next sunset or within 24 hours (and I thought the Irish were quick about it). The body should face Mecca – or the head at least – and some say that a copy of the Koran should be put under your head (not sure how this would happen though, if you’re standing up).

Hidaad (mourning) for a family member lasts for just three days. No unwanton display of emotion is permitted as it might disturb the dead. Irish banshees and caoiners (professional wailers) would be out of business. Women who have been widowed though have an extended period of mourning – Iddah (or Edda) – which lasts 4 months and 10 days. During this time, the woman can’t wear perfume or jewelry, can’t remarry, and has to sleep at home each night, only leaving the house to go to work or run errands.

IMG_4330 (800x600)Irish Catholic funerals are more for the living than for the dead. I’ve been to funerals of people I’ve never met, but I knew their sons, daughters, sisters, whatever. At a Muslim funeral, men face Mecca in the front row, then children line up in the second, and then the women. I’ve said before that if there’s a feminist streak in me, it wouldn’t cut butter on a hot day, but still this is something I think I would have difficulty with. The entire service takes place standing and a significant part of it is silent.

IMG_4325 (800x600)There are lots of variations on the above, depending on what you read and where. What’s interesting for me though, is the standing part. I know my soul will leave my body when I die and that my body couldn’t care less what position it’s in, but enough Irish folklore has seeped into my blood for me to still balk at the idea of standing upright for eternity.

For the mosIMG_4341 (800x600)t part, graves are above the ground and there’s a marked absence of flowers and candles. I wonder what Muslims in Hawaii do, given the locals’ penchant for decoration? In the province of Istanbul, there are 333 cemeteries, apparently, of which 268 are Muslim. The one I happened across was rather small and as I couldn’t make head nor tail of the dates, I have no idea of its age. Even with the complete lack of adornments (and perhaps because of same) it was rather beautiful.

I have no idea of the name either. The sign on the wall outside said ‘Türk Ocağı İstanbul Şubesi’, which according to Google Translate means ‘Turkey, Istanbul Branch in January‘. But I’m sure it was a cemetery….

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Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world

Sitting in a hotel room on a Sunday morning in Geneva last month, it seemed as if my plans for the day were doomed. To get to where I wanted to go, I’d have to take a train out of the city and then double-back by bus (the only route).  I’d just discovered that both Richard Burton and Alistair MacLean were buried about half an hour by car outside the city in the village of Céligny, but in the few hours I had before dinner with some friends, I wouldn’t have time to make the trip. Then my phone went. It was DD. Before dinner at his, he said, why not visit a little cemetery he’d come across just outside the city.  I texted back, already knowing that the universe had listened. ‘It wouldn’t be in Céligny by any chance?’

IMG_2903 (800x600)IMG_2922 (800x600)Lots of famous people are buried in Switzerland. I was quite surprised that Richard Burton would end his days in this tiny sanctuary – Vieux Cimitière –  also known locally as the protestant cemetery. But then I hadn’t known that he’d lived amidst the 600 or so locals for the last 26 years of his life  in a three-bedroom converted farmhouse that had a library bigger than the cottage in which he was born.

IMG_2908 (600x800)And I was equally surprised that given there are fewer than 30 (I think I counted 28) resting peacefully around him, that one of these should be Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean. I grew up on MacLean. I begged my dad to join the local library so that I could use his tickets to pick books from the adult section. The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare  – I loved them all. Although not yet old enough for the library’s classification of adult, I was ‘safe’ with him as, quite unusually for his genre, his heroes never had sex; he believed that it, and romance, simply got in the way of the action. For a man who made a fortune churning out thrillers (so much so that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile), he never claimed to be a writer: ‘I’m not a born writer, and I don’t enjoy writing […] I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished.’ And yes, Mr MacLean, sometimes it showed. Nonetheless, thank you for the many many hours of mindless entertainment you gave me and so many millions of others – and thanks too, for the entreaty you left on your gravestone.

IMG_2915 (800x600)IMG_2913 (600x800)Near both of these famous people lies another man. André Bordier’s eternal words are quite simple – vis ta vie – live your life. I have no idea who he was, or what sort of legacy he left behind, but I was completely enthralled by the sculpture that stands on his headstone, wondering briefly if it was an African-influenced take on the Madonna and Child.

It’s a lovely spot, hidden from the world  off a small country lane that runs by a stream. It’s quiet, full of shadows, with a a sense of peace about it that would lend itself to reading. I can think of worse places to spend eternity.

IMG_2938 (800x600)IMG_2928 (800x600)Not far away is the new cemetery, a different world entirely, with closely set graves that belie whatever attempt was made to put them in order. Encased behind a wall that clearly marks its territory, it too is quite beautiful, but in a different way. It has none of the wild abandon, the natural simplicity of the Vieux Cimitière. Add this to the engraved inscription above the gate – Ici l’égalite – and it would seem that a point was being made by its almost random orderliness.

IMG_2930 - Copy (600x800)I couldn’t help but contrast the wordiness evident here that was missing from the simpler graves next door. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering how many people give thought to their epitaphs. IMG_2916 (600x800)

 

 

 

The contrast was remarkable. I’m now leaning heavily towards a preference for nature running wild, with just a little bit of pruning, rather than the more modern gridplot effect that, even with flowers, can be a little sterile. No one really dies to order, do they? And few of us live the type of orderly life that should be mirrored by our graves.

 

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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2014 Grateful 40

Some people celebrate their birthdays in style. Some ignore them completely. Others still, like my mate GB in Malta, visits a cemetery. He’s not fussy about which one; as long as he gets to a cemetery on the day, he’s happy. He’s been doing it for years; he says it’s life-affirming.

20140328_134035_resized (800x600)20140328_133026_resizedI can relate to that. I have a thing or three for cemeteries, for the perspective they give and the calm they offer. Last week I visited GB’s favourite – Ta’Braxia – in part because I wanted to escape the madness, and in part because my mate Lori’s second anniversary was coming up and I needed to connect.

20140328_133153_resizedI hadn’t realised that back in 1915, Malta was treating the sick and wounded from military campaigns in Gallipoli (billed as one of the Allies’ great disasters of WWI) and the little-known Salonika, when in October 1915 a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression.. From these two campaigns, over 135 000 wounded found their way to Malta. It’s little wonder then, that the island’s cemeteries are full of foreign-sounding names.

20140328_133055_resized (600x800)Fast forward to WWII. While it was never invaded, Malta was bombed… and bombed… and bombed. Such was her perseverance in the face of adversity that in April 1942, the island and her people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

In Ta’Braxia cemetery, about 2 km outside of Valetta,  lie many of those who fought in both wars. I was struck by some of the inscriptions.

20140328_133603_resized-1 (800x600) (800x600) And another that simply said: Life’s work well done. Now come to rest. That’s something I wouldn’t mind being able to say with a measure of honesty when my time is up.

Some died of fever, others had drowned. More still were the wives and children of serving military from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France. While the men were remembered for their bravery, the women were remembered for their roles. One headstone in memory of Georgina read: The good and faithful wife of Mr John Sullivan, head-master of H.M. Dockyard school, Malta. She was just 25 when she died.

It was a lovely day; just the right sort of weather to visit a cemetery. And we had the place to ourselves, apart from a gardener or two. There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to stop and pay your respects, particularly to those who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world.

It was a manic week entailing lots of people-time. I’m physically and emotionally wrecked. I miss Lori terribly and wonder how much she can see from where she is. I’m grateful though for whatever it was that planted this appreciation for cemeteries in me and for that need I feel to spend time with the dead. Some might think it morbid, but like my mate GB, I find it life-affirming.