What is it about a gravesite…the silence of the stone itself, or the seeming permanence of the words etched into the stone, or the quiet peacefulness of the place, or simply the tribute it offers to a long-ago soul? Even a new grave gives me a sense of the person’s life and history, not just a death. I don’t intend here to be maudlin, because somehow a person’s burial place exudes a very real, personal quality…a life story. The place and the landscape and the marker amidst all the other stones always suggest to me something very real about the person, very much a sense of a life lived and a resolution, a sense of completion.
I have made a habit of visiting gravesites, especially of literary/artistic figures, and the visits always turn my mind to thoughts of the life that preceded.
A few years ago during a business trip, I made a side trip to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris to visit Vincent van Gogh’s grave. The effect of the journey itself flavored my impressions: the confusion in Gare Saint-Lazare and two train rides through the French countryside; discovery of the hotel where van Gogh had lived and worked feverishly in his final days—he completed about 80 paintings in 70 days; my cooling myself in the church that van Gogh had painted…where I listened to the piano tuner finishing his work; then heading uphill along a dirt path to find the graveyard huddled in a wheat field dotted with orange poppies. Van Gogh’s grave lies at the north end of the yard and is distinguished only by its covering of ivy; the stone is beautifully simple with just his name and years and an epitaph, “ici repose” (here lies). He lies next to his very dedicated brother, Theo. It portrays a colorful, quiet, simple life supported by a dedicated brother.
In Rome, I visited the Cimitero Inglesi where both John Keats and Percy Shelley are buried. The neighborhood of the cemetery is less than scenic, it even feels threatening, with graffiti and weeds overrunning the buildings and sidewalks. But the cemetery itself is within a high wall and walking through its gates makes clear the difference: the graveyard is terraced so the graves mount in front of you, rising up a small incline in a manicured garden of flowers and topiaried bushes and gravel walks and pruned trees…and, of course, an overflow of elaborate stones and vaults and statues. Shelley’s grave, at the nearly top tier of the incline is marked with a stone laid flat on the ground, surrounded by small boxwoods and ivy. On it is cut, “Cor Cordium” (Heart of Hearts). He is buried next to Trelawney, a friend who identified Shelley’s drowned body when it washed up on shore…to lie through eternity next to his friend: it portrays a Romantic life with passionate friendships.
Across the main body of the cemetery in a section with many fewer graves and many fewer plantings and a wide spread of lawn is Keats’s grave. It is marked with an upright stone, which bears his famous epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”…but not his name. It stands among ivy and lilies surrounded by a small curb. He, too, is buried next to a friend, Joseph Severn, who had traveled to Rome with Keats to aid him through his illness. It is off in the far corner of the cemetery across from a stone bench nestled in the corner of the cemetery wall, where one can sit and consider the pathetic bitterness carved on the stone…to die at 25 in a far-off land, away from his bride-to-be, at the very beginning of his brilliance would make anyone bitter!
Last year I traveled to Copenhagen and made my pilgrimage to the home/museum of Karen Blixen (penname, Isak Dinesen), about 18 miles north of the city. On a very rainy morning in August, the train dropped me a mile from the museum. Nearly halfway to the museum, I found a path marked as a museum trail…I followed it hoping to find whatever destiny offered. The path wound through a beautifully maintained grove, dripping eerily with rain. I was led to an enormous beech tree and Blixen’s grave, essentially in the middle of nowhere. The flat stone, encircled by a chain, was etched with only her name; someone had thrown a bright red flower onto the stone...it lay wilting in the rain. The scene could not have felt lonelier...nor spoken more eloquently of a lonely life.
Finally, on a family trip to Italy, we visited the town of Rometta in the mountains of Sicily above Messina…the town from which family emigrated early in the twentieth century. Seeking family records and evidence led us, naturally, to the town’s cemetery. It sits atop a neighboring hill with a magnificent view to the sea and is made up of tombs and statues and markers—the likes of which we don’t find in the United States. The graveyard is crowded with stacked mausoleums and ranks and files of gravestones…all decorated with flowers and photos and statues and elaborate engravings naming “beloved wife” or “dedicated father” or “loving mother.” This cemetery portrays a community: hundreds of years and thousands of lives of family devotion.
It’s just the feeling I get…the cemeteries are so often beautiful and the gardening is an obvious expression of care and artistry and each grave marker tells something tragic or beautiful or mysterious about the souls interred there and the lives that led there.