I would think that cemeteries would be sad places to walk when we don’t believe in God. I watched a documentary about Pere Lachaise, a cemetery in Paris, that has the remains of many famous people. The people interviewed who visit regularly never professed any belief in God, although some commented that it would be nice if these people existed someplace else.
And yet, there was such a respect for the dead as so many volunteers filled large bottles of water from the outdoor water tap on the grounds, poured it over the stones and using a cloth cleaned and shone them. Often, flowers were left on top of the tombstones. Sometimes, if it was an artist, a bottle of paint or a paintbrush was left. If he was a famous writer, a pen would be left. Unfortunately, the best cared for tombstones were those of famous people such as Chopin, Proust, Maria Callas and Yves Montand. Therefore, there war many tombstones that were not so well kept.
And yet, many family members and friends paid their respects to their loved ones by visiting their tombstones. Some came every week and even daily to shine the stones and to talk to their loved ones. I wondered if I should feel any guilt that I don’t go visit my parents, but I wondered if I would be more apt to go there if the cemetery wasn’t so far away. I have memories as a young girl of my family going to the cemetery every Mother’s Day to visit my paternal Grandma.
I liked it when one tour guide interviewed said that he has his tourists spend more time with people they don’t know rather than the famous. He said he wanted them to “feel a connection not just with famous people but also with people you don’t know.” Perhaps we have even greater connections to the ordinary men and women since few of us have experienced fame. If those stones could talk, we would hear stories of love, anger, jealousy, betrayal, hard work, sickness, and sadness. I suppose those same stories are true of the famous. In fact, one volunteer cleaning a tombstone of a young Italian artist told the story of how this artist’s model and lover jumped out of the window and died and joined him the day after his death!
Certainly I connected to a mother’s love for her daughter who died at 21 years old. She had all of her young daughter’s poems inscribed on her tombstone. Sadly, since it hasn’t been taken care of, only a small portion of a poem can presently be seen. I was moved by the tour guide’s compassion when he told this story and how he was touched when he saw that a flower had been left in memory of her. When I go there, I would like to find Elisa Mercouer’s tombstone, but the tour guide said that it is difficult to find since so much of the stone is worn and her stone isn’t even mentioned in the booklet that tourists receive.
As the documentary continued, I watched a young pianist become emotional when she discussed her connection to Chopin. However, the connection was particularly deep since her father loved Chopin and whenever she played this composer’s music, she sensed her dad’s presence and felt that she was playing for him. So often our connections are held together by some common experience, some memory, or some emotion and that is why I felt a connection to a young singer who died at 28 years old from cancer. For some reason I thought of her story when I received today’s e-mail about praying for a cure for cancer: ” “You can go along for years in remission and then one day it pops its head up again. If you ever have it you will never be free of it.” I didn’t find that particularly encouraging since I have had cancer two years in a row. This young singer had been living passionately and was following her dreams of becoming a well known singer until she became ill. No matter our age, that is all that we can ever hope to achieve in this life. My connection with her through this devastating disease inspired me and challenged me to do the same.
As a Christian, I believe that my loved ones are in heaven so that I don’t believe I have a greater connection to my Mom and Dad when I sit by their tombstone. Yet, there was something lovely to watch all of these people coming by showing their respect to the dead.
Therefore, with Father’s Day approaching, perhaps I will suggest to my family that we go and pay our respect to my parents. I may even leave two roses on their shared tombstone. And in honour of those many people I don’t know at our cemetery, I will stop at a few and pay my respects. And when I go to Paris, I will do my best to find Elisa Mercouer and leave a flower on her tombstone and tell her that she has been remembered.
However, as I walk through these two cemeteries, I know that I will be grateful for my Christian beliefs. I am confident that my Mom and Dad are spending eternity in heaven and that I will someday see them again. I am grateful that when I think about how their bodies have returned to dust that I believe that they have souls and that those souls have left their bodies. Ironically, as I walk through these cemeteries and possibly sense all of our humanity, I might even sense more particularly the presence of Mom and Dad. However, I suspect what I might see is the shaking of their heads when they ask one another, “Doesn’t she know that we aren’t here?”