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JULY 9, 2010 3:22PM

I'll Be Up In A Minute

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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.

As with all cemeteries inside a city, one is immediately struck by the contrast of quiet hush within and noisy rush without. Germans tend to be serious by nature and design, and they can be even more pensive when caring for their deceased.

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

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Welcome back, RC! And with an impressive splash, as well! This is such a terrific post: well written (the two paragraphs that begin "Every day, silent older women" and end "those who still believe themselves immortal" are perfect), well illustrated (lovely pictures), instructive (buddhist monk training begins in a cemetery--I hadn't known that), and satisfyingly moralized (the examples used to underscore the commonality of human experience, the contemplation of the preciousness of life). A great and moving read.
Thanks so much, AHP! I took a five-month break from blogging to work on other writing projects, mostly a book of short stories that is now half-finished. I'm so glad you liked my post, and thank you for the specific feedback. Bergfriedhof, like most cemeteries, is an unexpectedly inspiring place.
This is really an interesting and lovely piece._r
I too am interested and often fascinated by cemeteries, especially in Europe. The Jewish cemetery in Prague comes to mind, such a poignant place it was when I first visited in 1976. The beautiful St.Peter's, Petersfriedhof in Salzburg also comes to mind. What a place! Thank you for your lovely tour and writing. So interesting. R
Pilgrim has said it all.
I've enjoyed this post for its beauty and its depth.
Thank you.
Beautifully written post. Everything that Pilgrim said. And I love the balloon sailing overhead.
Wonderful post and pictures r
Stunning and well written, RC!
Great pics. I raised 3 of my 4 kids in a farm house next to an old New England Cemetery. All three of them learned to ride their bikes in there...
Thankyou for your post, bought the place "alive" so to speak. I love cemeteries as I too grew up with them as they were part of the farm. Australian cemeteries are as rugged as the land they are in and often neglected unlike European ones.I had forgotten how special they were.
I taught my boys two things from cemeteries, subtraction & to live life to the full because this is where we all end.
We lived in Emmerstgrund/Boxberg during the 4 years my dad was stationed at Heidelberg. One of my favorite places on this earth. Thank you for taking me there again.
I really liked this. I liked the Dali Salvadore illustration. I love he Dali 's bief in`
I'll visit graveyards for a sense of history, mortality, and sense Immortality.
Eternity. Yes.

Here lied Soloman Pea.
Pea is not under the sod.
Shell is Left. Pea with god.
Graveyards are sacred Places.
Elmwood is in Shepardtown, W.V..
You can do a walking Civil War tour.
You walk from the graveyard alive.

There is much to read @ O.S. too.
I get the `Something Went Wrong.
It's a www.something.oy happened
Thanks so much for all of the kind comments and for sharing your own experiences. It's good to know I'm not the only one who likes cemeteries. With so many people having their ashes scattered these days, graveyards may one day be a thing of the past, which would be a shame as we need them to remind us to love life. Thanks again!
p.s. I don't secretly work for a mortuary business...:-)
Great post! There are many of us who find cemeteries soothing and places of respite. Thanks for the post. Death is a difficult topic for most and the grace and serenity of this are great.
Beautiful post. I agree that sometimes it does take confronting death and the dying to wake up your soul and be the impetus to appreciate life more fully. My mother called me this week to inform me my dad was in the hospital- luckily nothing serious; turned out to jsut be a rapid heartbeat- but the phone call really did shake me to the core and make me want to spend as much quality time with my dad as I can.
Very interesting read, RC.

Seems there's a huge online community with common interests. Groups meet at gravesites and cemeteries all over the world to photo-document and add to the site.


Absolutely fantastic post. Your writing is so lyrical - factual - full. (I'm an idiot this morning and can't comment well
But i loved this, and I love cemeteries (walk through one every day) and it inspired me to do a project today that I have been putting off. So thank you.
beautiful cemetaries...kinda oxymoronic, but thanks to this piece I see how these European plots can be pleasing to the eye
Thank you, Cabin. Funny how cemeteries, which represent the thing we all fear the most, can also be soothing.

I hope your father is doing better, Michelle. My dad has had a rapid heartbeat for decades and is still kicking in his early 80s. I take extra magnesium with the hope I won't have the same issue.

Thanks, Blue Roses, for the site. I will check it out and maybe add my two cents to it.

Thank you, aim, for your great words about my post; they inspire me to keep on going. Glad to inspire you back...

Good word, Sidik. Oxymoron, indeed, but not always!
I enjoyed your post very much, RC! And the slow way in which you strolled through your material. I am also a chronic visitor to Paris cemeteries, particularly Montmartre, where I spent some good hours this past June, and where one of my favorite French film directors, Francois Truffaut, rests. I wrote about it and Oscar Wilde's whimsical resting place on my blog: Passages Home: http://talinedv.wordpress.com.
Look forward to reading more from you. T.
Thanks for this insightful look at cemeteries.

I have always had a fascination with them, and now stop whenever I can to read headstones and try to imagine what the life of the departed had been about. Old, young, somewhere in between . . . Lovely places to rest, or barren and neglected. Different cultures pay respect to their deceased in ways that may shock or offend.

I literally stumbled across an ancestor's grave while searching for something else.
A few years back, I went to the cemetery in Wilmersdorf Berlin to look for the grave of my great grandparents. Armed with a picture taken many years ago. I scoured the graveyard with no luck. I then went to the cemetery office and made an inquiry. The old gentleman there asked me "when did they go to sleep" in German. When I replied 1927, he simply shook his head. "Long gone" the reply. He explained that graves are dug up after twenty years or so, and rented to new occupants. This was a side of German cemeteries that I was unaware of. They are pretty though!