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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Then 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.I 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?