Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
There are times when a walk in springtime is the pinnacle of joy and energy. Right after a really intense EMDR session with your trusted therapist is not such a time, which is why I found myself, yesterday afternoon, sauntering past the many paths on the beautiful cemetery close to my children’s school, occasionally stopping to read some names and take some photographs.
The Central Cemetery of Bruges is actually the oldest graveyard in Belgium, the first funeral took place in 1787, and time has woven mossy patterns on many of the gravestones, often hiding the names of those buried underneath.
The graveyard is maintained quite well but also left to grow in its own natural way in many places, with crosses overgrown with ivy and coloured by decades of rust. There’s at times a sort of gothic haunting atmosphere and then again a sweet medieval nostalgia, depending on the weather and time of day.
There is something magical about the stillness in cemeteries, the subdued atmosphere. And hidden in its quiet, is a myriad of stories.
As the stories of war become louder and more alarming, the graveyard shared some as well.
I passed a small Commonwealth cemetery containing graves of soldiers of the Alliance that fought in WWII. There were men and women of different ages, though far too many who were far too young, and many of the graves carried epitaphs written by family members. Some talked about how their loved one fought for his country, others how he was summoned and obeyed, and all about how much they missed their son, daughter, husband, wife, brother or sister.
There were graves of men who were executed, either by gunshot or decapitation, in 1945. And of unknown men who were laid to rest among their fellow soldiers. There was the grave of two children, sister and brother, who died due to a bombing in WWI. There were many graves of veterans, whose families told of their medals of honour.
The cemetery and the wars that passed through this city are interwoven. And even though it is now only the elderly here who remember what this country was like in a time of war (my late grandmother told me quite a few stories), we have plenty of refugees who can tell us of its horrors. War is still very much part of our story, even if it seems further away.
Cemeteries are full of death and grief, but they are also full of the one thing that is at the root of all grief: love. There are meticulously maintained graves of people who were deeply loved, and overgrown graves of people who were loved just as deeply. There are graves of families, siblings, grandparents and babies. Those who died of old age and those who were stillborn, and everything in between. And most of these people were deeply loved.
It leads me to believe that if this connection to death and grief were as visibly interwoven into our lives as it invisibly already is (though we close our eyes for its reality), we would treat death, and therefore also life, with so much more reverence. And perhaps we would see that the tragedy doesn’t only lie in whether someone died or not, but perhaps mostly in whether they were truly loved while living.