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Matters of Life and Death – European Cemeteries

Most people don’t exactly think of seeing a cemetery when they go to a foreign city. I used to be one of these people. I also used to be one of those people who could never even remember the orthography of the darn word. I swear I had to look up the spelling before I started writing this post. However, certain encounters with cemeteries have changed my indifference toward them, and I would like to share them with you. These are a few impressions from my travels through Europe:

1.Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland (2007)

When I went to Poland for six months as a volunteer, my beforehand instructions for the train journey to my tiny town were as follows: „About twenty minutes after Kłodzko station, you should see a cemetery to your right. The next stop after that is yours.“ So I was standing at the carriage door on a cold January night, approaching my destination, my nervousness growing at every stop since Kłodzko, asking myself how in the world I could spot a cemetery when it was pitch black outside.

But all of a sudden there was light in the utter darkness. What seemed to me to be hundreds of votive candles were glowing through the night and I was caught by the devout and solemn beauty of it with such force that I forgot to be nervous anymore. It was not an image of death. It was one of the afterlife and of eternity. I got off the train at the next stop and started my Polish adventure with the lights of hope in my heart.

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2. Lviv, Ukraine: Lychakiv Cemetery (2009)

In Lviv, there is a street along which all the hospitals are lined up, and it connects the city center with Lychakiv Cemetery. The way into town used to be called the axis of life. The way to the cemetery – the axis of death. As morbid as this may be, I loved the symbolism behind it. It was so easy, so clear-cut and so utterly understandable: Life – or death. City – or cemetery. No shades of grey. Just definite answers.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

Maria Konopnicka was a 19th century Polish writer and contemporary of…

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine

… Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko.

Lychakiv is very old, it has been around since 1787. It has been used by different Christian confessions and different social classes, and it holds the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów – a war memorial for those who died here between 1918 and 1920 fighting  for the city to become Polish again after Habsburg reign and World War One’s Soviet occupation. It holds graves of famous Poles and Ukranians alike. It was here that I noticed for the first time the specific aesthetics and beauty of tombstones, mausoleums and arcades in a cemetery. In the older parts of the cemetery, a lot of the stones are moss covered, and I couldn’t help but feel at peace with that image of nature reclaiming our manmade memorials for itself. I found the idea of all of us returning to nature eventually extremely comforting in that moment.

Lychakiv, Lviv, Ukraine3. Sarajevo, Bosnia: Kovači Cemetery (2010)

The Sarajevo cemeteries are of particular sadness, because they are so large and such a big part of the graves are war graves. I learned here that in Islam, the graves that have pointed pyramid stale on one side and a round-tipped one that looks a bit like a bullet shell on the other are always war graves.

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Passing through this scene having a view of a mosque, the orthodox and the catholic cathedral gave me chills. So much transcending of different cultures in this place – and that is exactly what brought about the war. All the tombstones have dying dates between 1991 and 1995. There is such a lot of unfulfilled potential buried here, so much unlived life. The gravity of it sunk down on me with force, and I cried liberating tears. And I was so grateful that there is peace today in my home country and in this country.

4. Zagreb, Croatia: Mirogoj Cemetery (2010)

Funnily, I only went to Mirogoj because I had told my Couchsurfing host that I had loved Lychakiv in Ukraine. It was a bright and sunny day in Zagreb, and going to the cemetery felt a bit off, but as soon as I got there and saw the entrance gate in all its splendor, I didn’t regret it. I roamed the cool alleyways for a while, wondering about the lives that had preceeded the deaths now shielded by the cold stone. It was by no means a sad wondering – just curiosity, really.

Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaThen I heard someone sobbing. I looked around and it took me a while to discover an elderly woman, crouching down on a tomb slab, weeping bitter tears. The sight of it broke my heart. I circled her for a few minutes. Then I picked up my courage, approached her, put my arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against me and cried.  After a while I told her in German: „Unfortunately I do not speak Croatian, but I am really very sorry for your loss.“ She looked at me with eyes so clear that they didn’t seem to fit her advanced age, and replied in the same language: „Me bit German.“ She told me how she was mourning her son. I held her, and I listened to her broken sentences. I don’t think that there was any other moment in my life when I felt more intensely what the notion of humanity means, and never before had I understood compassion as truly as I did then.Mirogoje, Zagreb, CroatiaI haven’t really felt these places to be very gloomy or scary. In fact I think that cemeteries allow us to reflect on death and life equally, and that they are places where emotions are maybe more dense than elsewhere if you let yourself feel them. They invite us to think about impermanence, about finiteness. I have always found things to be of the greatest beauty when I knew that they wouldn’t stick, and travel has taught me not to regret or fret about this, but to turn the knowledge of it into an immense gratitude for being there to witness the beauty of the moment. That is what cemeteries do for me. They make me grateful.

What do you think about cemeteries? Gloomy or peacful? Scary or hopeful? Do you have a favorite cemetery?

21 Comments

  1. Cemeteries certainly are places to reflect and take a private moment. It is rare that I visit one unless it is unless I’m going to the headstone of someone I once knew or someone who was famous. I think that is the same for most of us. They are private places and always will be.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 14, 2013 at 11:04 am

      That is true. I don’t think we take enough of the private moments that cemeteries provide us with.

  2. I might be a weird person but I always try to visit the cemetery when I’m in a new country – they give me a good sense of the culture of the place and they’re always so peaceful and beautiful, no matter which religion it is…

    Cemeteries in Sarajevo and Mostar were the worst I’ve visited though, just like you wrote, there were way too many graves from these few years, it was just too much to handle for me…

    • bridgekeeper

      März 14, 2013 at 11:07 am

      I obviously don’t think you’re weird, because I enjoy going to cemeteries too. Like you say, they are such an interesting reflection of cultures. I understand how you had a very hard time at the war cemeteries. It’s an intense experience.

  3. Another great post with a favourite topic of mine (are sure we are not related??!)

    I totally get you with cemeteries, although it hasn’t always been the case for me. I grew up in a society where cemeteries are known to be scary filled with unseen ghosts and other spirits. That’s just how it is in Indonesia and most cemeteries are built in this way too – dark, gloomy, in the most quiet part of town. No one really goes around wandering in cemeteries.

    But in Europe, I find the cemeteries so enchanting and beautiful. People really take their time to decorate the homes of the death and I find it so peaceful there. My favourite has got to be Pere Lachaise in Paris and also an Orthodox cemetery in the area of St Nicholas Church in Brasov, Romania.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 14, 2013 at 11:08 am

      That is so interesting, Aggy. How about a post on cemeteries in Indonesia?? xx

  4. Oh, I visit cemeteries whenever I am traveling as well! I dunno, I find doing so rather insightful; it provides a window to social norms such as dealing with death. I have visited several in the past, including Berlin’s own St. Matthew’s Cemetery. When I was living in Buffalo, I visited the Forest Lawn Cemetery. I also visited Toronto many times, and visited the Necropolis and the St. James Cemetery; somehow Canadian cemeteries feature lots of urns and round objects. But my most favorite cemetery is in Chile, which is Santiago’s Cementerio General, which has tombs from all sorts of people, from the mausoleums for the rich, to the piled up layered tombs for the not-so well-off.

  5. I like visiting cemeteries when I travel too. One special moment was visiting my great-grandmother’s grave on the teeny tiny island she was born/lived on in Canada. We share the exact same name so it was especially sentimental. I’ve visited civil war cemeteries here in the south (that are all supposedly haunted!) but they are from the 1700-1800s mostly. I think I’ll visit the one in Sarajevo when I visit this coming fall… I know it will be emotional but I think it’s important in understanding the past.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 14, 2013 at 11:10 am

      Wow… Of course it’s a more emotional thing when you visit a grave of someone you know. My cousin had the same-name-phenomenon with our grandfather once when I was there. It’s a bit eerie. You should see the Sarajevo one, I agree, I think it’s important.

  6. I have often visited cementaries in older cities or in remote places. Interesting to seen the various headstones and writings. Glad to hear you comforted the older woman missing her son. Look forward to your next bridge crossing.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks Steve – yes, that was a very special moment with the woman there in Zagreb. I won’t ever forget it.

  7. I love this post! My grandfather came from a small village just outside Lviv – I wonder if any of my ancestors are buried in that cemetery?

    • bridgekeeper

      März 17, 2013 at 1:59 pm

      Not unlikely – it is a huge cemetery. You should just go there and start looking 🙂 Lviv is worth a trip on the whole, I love the place!! Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting 🙂

  8. I think I am one of those few people that has always been fascinated by cemeteries. Whenever I travel, I always need to stop at a cemetery because each one is unique in its own way. For instance, when I was in Aruba, the cemetery there was all in pastel colors and the one I saw in Spain was high above the road we were traveling.

    • bridgekeeper

      April 3, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      I would love to see pictures of those, Kim!! It looks like there are more of us in the cemetery-obsessed league than I’d have ever thought. Lovely to meet one more! 🙂

  9. It shouldn’t take me too long to find the photos for the cemeteries I visited. I have some for Vienna, Paris, Barcelona and Aruba and stories to tell about a few of them. How interesting that no matter what we see in the world that there is always some sort of story behind it.

  10. Obviously the first thing I think of when travelling is museums 😉 But I also love visiting cemetaries. They are so peaceful, especially if you’re in a big busy city. One of the first places I visited in Paris was the cemetaries, and the National Cemetary in Arlington (by Washington DC) is definitely worth a visit. When I lived in Scotland, the museum I worked was right next to a cemetary and in summer we would go there to sit outside and have our lunch!

    • bridgekeeper

      April 15, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Great to have you stop by, Jenni!! I did see the one in Arlington. The ones on Bosnia reminded me of that – so homogenous in many ways, eerie. Having lunch at a cemetery is something I’m never sure about. I don’t find it particularly disrespectful, it’s more like – an inclusion of the dead into your life. But surely some people don’t appreciate it. Did no one ever mind?

  11. I find cemeteries such peaceful places.

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 29, 2014 at 8:54 pm

      So do I. I think they are very underrated as sights. Do you happen to have a recommendation?

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