What better way to feel connected to the meaning of life than walking among the dead?
Every time I walk through the cemetery near my home in downtown Brisbane, I think of the people who once walked on the land I walk on now, who have been warmed by the same sun.
Among the graves of those lost in war, I learn of bravery and tragedy. When I pass by small stones raised to lost children, I contemplate the pain, the suffering and the loss.
Reading about a beloved husband, father and grandfather fills me with thoughts of a long life filled with joy and sadness, triumph and disappointment.
And when I find inscriptions written in languages other than my own, or expressions of faith different from the one with which I was brought up, I reflect on the great differences of life, the unity of death and the the wonder that we all share space, both inside and outside the cemetery walls.
From Toowong and South Brisbane to Brookfield and Bald Hills, Brisbane has some notable cemeteries. But are we, the living, making the most of these vast, tree-lined spaces?
Cemeteries exist in the same dense, landlocked suburbs where people feel short of space to move around and meet. Cemeteries tend to be large. Cemeteries can be managed by the council and have parking spaces, toilets and drinking fountains. Cemeteries tend to be peaceful, contemplative places, and may have tall trees, winding paths, manicured lawns and ponds, and in some cases kangaroos, possums, ducks, and frogs. And the people who visit the people they care for. In other words, cemeteries are the perfect antidote to the chaos of crowded, high-density, disconnected living.
I think of this when I go to visit Nan and Grandpa in their eternal resting place. I don’t visit often enough, but when I do I’m happy with this quiet resting space. They’re buried on the church grounds, and I like the idea of them watching the weddings come and go; hear families perform baptisms and counsel mourners grieving the loss of another loved one. During my visit, I kiss their tombstones and trace the letters of their names – the common letters of our family name – and I miss them, love them, and feel anchored in the dirt around them. Sometimes I bring my young daughter, even though she never knew Nan and barely remembers Grandpa. Most of the time I go alone.
Cemeteries are places of mourning. And that must be respected.
But cemeteries also have a history of places of recreation, at the heart of community life. In his study of American cemeteries, Keith Eggener points out that the large cemeteries built in American cities during the 1830s filled a void later filled by public art galleries and parks. They were places for funerals, picnics, hunting and horse-drawn carriage races. They were so popular that guides were published. Indeed, in Brisbane today, you can take a guided tour of some historic cemeteries; some are self-guided, others are group led. Obviously, there is still an interest in cemeteries that goes beyond their primary purpose.
So what more could we do? Well, a swing under a shade sail and a few extra bubblers would be a start. We could host public lectures, art classes, or meditation gatherings, and envision the magic of concerts in graveyards (just to be clear: I’m thinking more of a string quartet than a spectacular stage). The Underground Opera House in the former Spring Hill Reservoir, for example, has transformed a place rich in heritage value but poor in public interest into a beacon of Brisbane’s cultural landscape.
As always, it’s all about balance. Living things are complex, different and demanding – we want to live in the city, but we want wide open spaces to play. We want space for rituals, religious practices, rites of passage and reflection, but we can’t all agree on the how, where and why. I want to respectfully reinvent cemeteries, but I recognize that many are happy with them exactly as they are. And that’s OK. I’m sure there’s one thing we can agree on: that we all hope someday rest in peace.