“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” Marcus Tullius Cicero
Last Sunday I took part in a free walking tour of my new home city, kindly organised by the City of Geneva. This particular walk was focused on Geneva’s parks and gardens and took the group on a meandering tour from the Brunswick Monument on the left bank of the lake across to the newly reopened Musée d’Ethnographie.
One of our last stops was the Plainpalais Cemetery, known locally as Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of the Kings) in tribute to the notable personages buried there which include John Calvin, figurehead of the 16th century protestant reformation; Jean Luis Borges, famous Argentinian writer; Sofiya Dostoyevsky, daughter of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many more illustrious personages.
I already knew the cemetery well, as it’s close to my work place, and I had passed through and visited on many an occasion. So when the tour guide told us that in the summer this was a common picnicking spot I didn’t exhibit the surprise of some of my fellow tourists. I had seen that with my own eyes and have in fact consumed lunch in the cemetery on more than one occasion.
When a colleague first took me to eat in the cemetery, on a beautifully sunny October day, she seemed almost apologetic for bringing me there. I think she thought I might find the idea of eating our homemade food amongst the dead as somehow unseemly.
I don’t know why people have an aversion to cemeteries or fear of the dead, which is presumably where the aversion to their resting place comes from. I don’t know if ghosts exist or not but if they do I don’t see that there is any reason to fear them. If there are ghosts then I imagine them to be a sort of reflection or echo of the person they once were and as I have a tendency to believe all people are pretty decent at heart I see no reason to think that their spirits would be any different.
It also seems strange to me the idea that there ought to be a respectful distancing of ourselves from the dead whereby the idea of showing any happiness or joy in these places of death is to be severely condemned, as though the deceased would want us wailing over them forever.
My only negative experience in a graveyard revolved around a primary school incident of trying to raise a particular spirit from their grave, which ended badly in getting me grounded for two weeks for returning home two hours later than I was supposed to (we were waiting for it to get dark).
But the truth is, I have always rather liked cemeteries. I have many fond, and wholly unsqueamish, memories of walking around burial grounds with my parents from an early age. I liked the flowers, the calm and trying to read the inscriptions washed away by time on the oldest tombstones. But mostly I liked reading through the names, the dates of birth and death, the families recorded in the same plot and taking a moment to stop and think about the once living people who now lay beneath the earth.
I think my love of history comes from the same basic root of wanting to find a way to connect with those of the past. To think how their lives may have been, what they may have felt, to imagine myself in their shoes and to wonder if anyone in the future will ever try to connect with an historical version of myself?
I suppose that is also why I have a strong desire to one day write a great novel in the same way others desire to make their mark in film, be renowned for scientific discovery, bring about a revolution or raise a legion of children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. It’s the desire to be remembered and, in recognition of the truth that our lives are but fleeting moments in history, to think that there is a way in which we may continue to live on beyond our allocated time.
So, I explained to my lunch companion that I felt no compunction in enjoying the autumn sun, eating my sandwiches and relaxing in a cemetery. I think the idea of the living mingling with the dead is somehow a rather comforting thought.
Those of us picnicking in Plainpalais cemetery probably haven’t chosen the spot because we have some sort of morbid fascination with the ghoulish, we have come because it is a pleasant spot to be in. And if, whilst we are there to enjoy ourselves, we take a moment to look at a few stones, to read the names carved upon and to take a moment to think about the people they memorialise then that seems a more honourable way to remember the dead than to keep a ‘respectful’ distance.