Cemetery Walks

Posted by jlubans on March 01, 2016

Caption: Me, in a cemetery near my father’s eponymous town of Lubāna.

When in a far away place, I most always follow up on recommendations to go see a cemetery. Many are different from cemeteries in the USA with their manicured lawns and well-planned spacing. I like those in natural settings, forest cemeteries or old urban cemeteries with markers out of order – much like life, with each grave having its own style from thoughtful to sumptuous.
Like in America cemeteries, each plot’s immediate care is left up to relatives or, when absent or gone, to friends. When I am in Latvia, my cousin usually organizes a trip to a little forest cemetery far out in the country, across a secondary road from a rural Catholic Church, its doors never locked.
At the Lubāns plot, we pull weeds, trim hedges, hoe out unwanted grasses, plant begonias, straighten up stiff backs and admire our work. We haul away the green debris and toss it down an overgrown bank, below which meanders a sparkling country river.
Larger Latvian cemeteries, like those in Riga, provide dumpsters and water stations. In the country, you bring your own water and tools. The Lubāns plot takes on a new look, one like a close haircut – maybe a bit too close – the ears are naked - but no longer overgrown. The new flowers - along with a dozen or more grave candles – complete the annual cleanup. Always, before leaving, we stop in the Church to see the current saintly theme of decoration – always with local flowers or tree branches.
Years ago, on one All Souls Eve – the Day of the Dead - I spent several hours in the city of Totonicapán’s (Guatemala) cemetery. There people spend the night, families picnic and care for the grave site. Candles glow, kids play, parents catch a little sleep. Not at all the commercialized and zombie-fied Halloween of América del Norte.
Forest cemeteries, as I call them, often have plots with benches, some made from stone, others from sticks nailed precariously together. Some gravesites are maintained, it seems, monthly –usually by older women who take the tram to the large cemetery towards the outskirts of Riga. At cemetery’s edge, there are a half dozen flower and candle shops which cater to the visitor.
While any hallowed ground slows me down, to stand and listen, to look and wonder yet these are not “elegy in a country graveyard” moments for me.
Instead curious thoughts crowd my mind.
What might have been for a life interrupted by shrapnel?
Earthly remains are below, earthly memories above.
A Russian mother’s tears are no less bitter than any other mother’s. (This, when coming across a memorial service for Russian soldiers killed fighting for Communism, an ism responsible for millions of civilian deaths.)
Or, an observation: Some of us compete in death for space and recognition as we did in life. There’s no stopping some folks, a soul unwilling to admit defeat. Or, is the glazed and oversized monument the work of those left behind, a way to channel grief into substance?
Cemeteries are for the living, someone, no doubt, said.

Here are some photos from my cemetery walks.
Caption: Clean-up of the Lubans family plot with cousin Edgars.

Caption: The church across the way from the cemetery.

Caption: Memorial cemetery for Latvian soldiers. In Riga.

Caption: In Riga, well maintained memorial to Soviet soldiers.

Caption: Prague memorial.

Caption: Prague cemetery lantern.

Caption: Sometimes simple says it best of all. In Prague.

Caption: As mentioned, this friend's grave was part of the clean up illustrated in the first photo.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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