The Art of the Graveyard
While it's a little comically ghoulish, we have always loved the connection between family history month (October) and Halloween. We talk about ghosts in the graveyard and dead ancestors all being part of these traditions. All over the world, there are many traditions and ways to connect with ancestors and honor the dead. These meaningful practices guard this threshold between mortality and heaven.
Morbidity aside, one of my favorite things to do in my travels, is to visit graveyards. There is something beautiful about the aged headstones and the memories that feel nearly tangible in the still air of the grounds. Oddly enough, some of my most vivid life experiences have happened among and in remembrance of the dead. I hope you will indulge me in a little bit of storytelling of sharing living moments with the dead. My hope in sharing some of these experiences, is to illustrate the beauty to be found in visiting burial grounds. Do you find graveyards fascinating too?
Growing up, my grandmother was always consistent in decorating the headstones of our ancestors in the local cemetery. I often found myself her companion in taking mason jars filled with flowers from her garden to decorate great-grandparents graves. I loved the stories she would tell me about each ancestor as we placed our flowers. Their lives were personified for me, outside of their graves, through her memories.
When I was 20, I did a university study abroad in India. I lived there for five months and experienced many beautiful mourning traditions: ceremonial ash spreading, funeral pyres, the garlands of flowers. Near the end of my trip, my brother Brad flew to India to travel with me for a week. One of the things that we wanted to see was the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. If you didn't know, it is actually a giant tomb, commissioned for the wife of a Mughal emperor.
A part of me believed that it wouldn't live up to its hype as one of the wonders of the world. When we first arrived, a monsoon had moved in and the rain was coming down making it nearly impossible to see. We took shelter among the outbuildings but we couldn't yet see the Taj Mahal. After a quarter hour of intense rain, it gradually began to ease. We moved our shelter and had a view of the Taj for the first time. In that moment, the clouds parted and streaks of sunlight came through, and the Taj Mahal was glowing. To this day I still remember the feeling of being completely awestruck by this monumental mausoleum. The detail of work, the love that inspired it, and how well it has been preserved.
After I graduated from university, I spent nearly three years living in Europe. During that time, I found myself drawn to exploring graveyards in each place I went. At first I was a little bit creeped out, but over time, I began to appreciate these sacred places.
In Italy, there were two types of tombs: catacombs and family mausoleums. Catacombs are essentially underground tunnel graves. Many ancient cities throughout Europe used these type of graves. In Rome, you can visit the extensive catacombs, just try not to get lost. Another astonishing spot in Rome, is the Capuchin Crypt, or as I like to call it, the bone church. It is a series of small chapels built and adorned using the skeletal remains of Capuchin friars. This was not meant to be morbid, but instead acknowledging the beauty and peace found in death.
The other style of cemetery in Italy, is almost like a village of small but grand houses for the dead. In the Sicilian hill-top city of Ragusa, the cemetery is placed in the ravine between the hills. Each family of local repute has a family tomb, sometimes centuries old, that they maintain and use. The cemetery is set up like a small town with street names and rows of mausoleums lining the streets.
In Copenhagen, one of the oldest cemeteries, contains the resting place of famed storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. When I visited this city, the apartment I stayed in was a 30 minute walk from the city center. As I mapped my walk in, it took me through the center of this graveyard. During my week long stay, I walked through this same graveyard multiple times a day, and found it teeming with people at all hours of day or night. In many ways, it was treated like a park. When I asked someone about it, I was told that the Danish believe in maintaining friendly relations with the dead, and it is a regular, restful practice to walk in any cemetery.
Believe it or not, I actually first started to fall in love with my husband in a graveyard in Edinburgh. We were on a tour of the city, and started talking as we walked through Greyfriar's Kirkyard. Our conversations, about history, architecture graves, and religion were profound. So yes, my first flutterings of love happened in the graveyard. Also, for those of you Harry Potter fans, Greyfriar's Kirkyard is also, where J.K. Rowling used to wander while she was writing the first book. The headstones of Greyfriar's inspired many of her characters. As you wander through you can find the headstones of the real Tom Riddle, McGonagall, and more.
When my husband and I were dating, traveling back and forth between England and Scotland, we spent a bit of time in the coastal town of Whitby. My husband's grandparents live there, but it is also the famed British landing place of Dracula, in Bram Stoker's novel. At the top of the 99 steps, there is a graveyard that is haunted in the book. A bit of a chilling experience, to stand in the shadow of Whitby Abbey, as the wind whips off the sea.
My ancestors primarily come from Denmark, England, Scotland, and Wales. During my European sojourn, I made an effort to track down some of the graves and churches where my ancestors were married and later buried. It is difficult to even describe how full these experiences made my heart. As I read tributes and sweet words of mourning on headstones and it once again made these ancestors come to life. Just like the stories my grandmother shared, these distant ancestors became real to me as I walked around their graves and hometowns. My heart ached for what they chose to leave in search of a better life, yet gratitude for their sacrifice healed the ache.
During the month of October, family history month, I would encourage you to find a way pay tribute to your ancestors. Learn about them and love them. Visit a graveyard and honor their memory. One of our favorite ways to honor our ancestors is this tradition called Folks & Fables. This sneaky cat "discovers" photos, heirlooms, and family stories to share throughout the month.
Next time you travel, even if it is just the next town over, take some time to explore and feel the peace of the graveyard. There is much to admire in the tribute to generations past. If you are traveling the wide world, take a look at this book called Famous Family Trees and try to find a few of the famous graves if you don't have family ones to attend to first.
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