One of the many things to love about Europe is the cemeteries. Not that I don't appreciate the world of its living -- museums, architecture, cuisine, languages, you name it -- but Europeans do, with their eons of history, have a certain knack, a je ne sais quoi, when it comes to remembering previous manifestations of their personal gene pool.
The charming old city of Heidelberg, Germany, which was not bombed during World War II, has a cemetery that, for those of us predisposed to mortality, provides an unexpectedly pleasant home away from home. I sometimes stroll down its shaded pathways on the way from my daughter's apartment into town -- its soaring trees provide a brief respite from the summer heat. The cemetery is called Bergfriedhof, which means Mountain Peace Yard, a perfectly apt name for such a vast and rolling park dedicated to the quick and thousands of their dead.
Every day, silent older women, no doubt wives, daughters and sisters of the deceased, tend the begonias, impatiens, hydrangeas and other splashes of color that belie the lifelessness below. They sweep up the rare scrap of man-made litter along with leaves and twigs that might besmirch the otherwise serene order around each resting place.
In the meantime, young people zip by on foot or bicycle, most with earbuds to block the eerie silence with the pounding rhythms of those who still believe themselves immortal.
The black and gray gravestones are carved with names, dates of birth and death and the occasional quote from a melancholy philosopher. A few wealthy families adorn their plots with carved figures whose heads bow in grief at their passing. Understandably sad, of course, but all of this mourning sometimes makes me long for the highly whimsical Pere-LaChaise Cemetery in Paris where tombs are dressed up with soaring nude reliefs (Oscar Wilde), clusters of bright stone roses (Edith Piaf) or burned-out candles (Jim Morrison) and where the dead seem more amused than sorry at their demise.
On a personal note, I have already chosen my epitaph: "I'll Be Up In A Minute." Trying to decide whether to have a stone hand reaching up or out through the monument or urn...
Bergfriedhof caters to the middle and upper-middle class of Heidelberg, some of whom, like the astronomer and urologist, want us to remember them for the good they did in society. There is also the occasional famous person -- the great sociologist and economist Max Weber, for example, who studied at the University of Heidelberg down the road, is buried here, as is the celebrated lyric poet Hilde Domin, who escaped Germany during the 1930s and was later refused asylum in the U.S. Domin spent the war in the Dominican Republican, returning to her homeland in the 1950s with her husband, whose family had been wiped out in the Holocaust. They settled in Heidelberg where she had also been a student.
A portion of the cemetery is dedicated to Heidelberg's past and present Jewish community, whose graves line gentle walkways that wend up and over sloping hills. The stones are often etched with Hebrew letters and the Star of David. Many of the death dates end in the 1920s, a sad reminder that those family lines most likely vanished through escape, forced migration or execution. Other plots, whose family members still live nearby, remember those deported to France, for example, or who perished in Buchenwald or other concentration camps. Their death dates are marked with the year and occasional month, but their remains, of course, lie elsewhere.
Just a few steps away can be found the graves of other German families who remember their fathers and sons who died as soldiers during the same war, their death dates equally vague and their bodies most likely buried on the battleground where they fell. Their names appear with the occasional Iron Cross, the now banned symbol of the Germany Army.
This likely unintended but perhaps inevitable juxtaposition of these two German communities in the horrific mid-20th century sends a message that cannot be ignored -- we all become equal in death.
Still, cemeteries can be about more than sorrow and regret. That's why I spend time in them when I have a chance, especially in Europe. Not every day, mind you, but often enough to shake me out of my complacency and remind me how fortunate I am to be alive right here and right now. Perhaps that's why new Buddhist monks are often made to meditate in cemeteries -- graveyards do keep things real.
Denying death won't make it go away, and acknowledging it won't bring it any sooner. But if we would just let it, this awareness might deepen our breath, lighten our burdens and enliven our step.
Especially on the way to the cemetery exit and the delights of the living -- good food, art, conversation, music, friendship, maybe even the occasional passing balloon, right outside or above its heavy stone walls.
Text and Pictures © Rebecca Clay Haynes