I confess to a peculiar and long-standing fascination with cemeteries. I find them neither creepy nor depressing. Walking around a graveyard offers me a sense of consolation. My future, at least in this respect, is guaranteed. There is no possibility of an exemption. By the close of this century, most of the 7 billion travellers with whom I currently share the planet will, like me, have returned to ashes and dust. When you reach a certain age, a friend once said to me, it is helpful to spend a little time with death each day. It offers you the opportunity to reflect on what lies ahead.
Forty years ago I lived in Paris. In spite of my great affection for graveyards and my devotion to The Doors, I never went to Pere Lachaise and so, when I was visiting the city in May, I decided to go, arriving early in the morning in order to avoid the coach crowds, the guided tours and the pilgrims in search of the shrine to Jim Morrison. The main entrance to the cemetery is guarded by a row of stone tombs, reminiscent of vaulted telephone boxes. The tiny chapels, which date from the early 1800s, reveal crosses and candlesticks on cracked altars, faded photographs and exquisite, largely intact, stained glass windows. Creeping carpets of ivy obscure the names of the long dead and towering mausoleums stand in memory to the great and the good who lived and died in the city – Balzac, Chopin, Moliere, Piaf, Proust, Wilde …… There are ordinary citizens too, including the 19 year-old Suzon Garrigues, one of the 130 people killed in the November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris. The graves at Pere Lachaise are densely packed and huge crows stand guard on the tombs, their lacquered feathers catching the sunlight through the maple trees.
In 2016, on the morning I visited the Forest Cemetery in Davos, there were no other visitors. The graveyard was built outside the town in order to protect the sensibilities of dying TB patients who filled the alpine sanatoria between the two World Wars. The wooden crosses are all alike. None are permitted to be taller than the prescribed 85cms and each one has a small, chalet roof. The Waldfriedhof is a place of quiet serenity, lying in a mature forest of larch trees with views to the Matterhorn.
My favourite cemetery is Bonaventure near Savannah, Georgia, made famous by John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Spanish moss drapes the branches of the one hundred year old live oaks which, together with the magnificent stone-carved angels create an ethereal, dream-like space. I don’t have a clear sense of the after-life but in my imagination Bonaventure comes close to it.
In Switzerland, where my mother was born, cemeteries are tightly controlled and rigorously supervised. You would be hard-pressed to find a toppling, crumbling, moss-stained headstone anywhere and the main reason is that, with the exception of family plots, Swiss graves are rarely more than 25 years old. After a quarter of a century, the burial ground is dug up and leased to a new tenant, a practice my father referred to as a barbaric tradition. He died in England, two years after my mother and, following the funeral service, I took his ashes to Switzerland to be buried alongside hers. In 1998, this was a comparatively straightforward process. As I passed through security at Heathrow, the official questioned me: What’s in the package? My father’s ashes. I replied. I’m sorry for your loss, he said. Please continue.
As the twenty five year period is calculated from the death of the first spouse, I decided, in 2018 to move my parents’ place of temporary rest to England, where I have lived for the past 20 years. I lodged my request with the Swiss cemetery authorities who scratched their heads, unsure of how to proceed. This was most unorthodox, they said. It would require special paperwork, they said. It might not even be possible. OK, I said. I’ll wait. And I did … until it was eventually agreed that the ossuaries could be disinterred and taken out of the country. My parents’ ashes were sealed in plastic tureens. No awkward questions were asked as we crossed the border back into England, possibly because the undertaker had thoughtfully placed the urns in two cardboard wine boxes.
On September 5th, which marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, our small family gathered to witness the re-burial of my parents’ ashes. My paternal grandfather’s remains also lie at Barham Cemetery, on land that had once been part of Lord Kitchener’s estate. Polly, Lucy and I laid yellow roses on my parents, their grandparents’ grave and I read aloud the unsourced obituary Mum had chosen for herself twenty-five years earlier: Do not be sad at my passing for I have gone to those I loved in order to wait for those I love. My husband, Dan recited The Lord is my Shepherd, one of my father’s favourite psalms.
A few weeks ago I returned to Switzerland for the first time since 2019 and I visited the cemetery where my parents had spent twenty years. Their old plot, which lies under a weeping willow tree, offers no indication of previous occupancy. The headstone is long gone, recycled or possibly broken up to serve as gravel chips. Carefully controlled ivy grows over the still vacant plot which, sooner or later, will serve as the temporary burial ground of a new resident.
* taken from Song of Myself, 6 by Walt Whitman