To this day, whatever part of the world I’m in, I still can’t walk past a graveyard without some pause, without at least a furtive glance beyond its gate and walls. And sometimes, when the gate to memory lane opens up wide in my mind, I will give in, and lose myself in the cemetery’s alleys. There are stories here, nothing but stories, one for every grave you pass. Size and quality of stone speak of riches and poverty. Dates whisper of longevity or a life cut short. Here’s a family of four where the parents outlived their sons. There’s a loner resting below the epitaph he wrote. And here, a soldier’s simple cross stands guard and speaks of a war no one really won.
But the boy in me disagrees – in his wars the good guys always won.
At the edge of my hometown’s burial grounds sits a secluded plot, protected by fir trees, commemorating the past two world wars. What better place for a boy to enact his imaginary wargames? During the summer holidays, when my father and his men headed for the cemetery to erect yet another stonecast promise of remembrance, I was allowed to bring along a friend – one, no more – if we promised to behave. Without fail, we would slip away to the war section where first I would proudly point out the headstones of two brothers who bore my family’s name, cousins of my father, members of the local and inexperienced resistance arrested by the Germans in 1942. The oldest was beheaded in November ’43. He was twenty-two years old. The youngest died a few months later of deprivation. He didn’t make it past his nineteenth birthday.
It never failed to impress my friends, and I suppose, for a moment, the reality of war did send a chill down the back of our necks. But then we would move on, check out the other headstones, try and pronounce the outlandish sounding names of the Polish soldiers who’d died liberating our town. We’d take on our respective roles and head back for the main cemetery where the larger family sepulchres became castles and forts, and the unadorned concrete burial vaults were turned into bunkers.
All of this was hallowed ground, and yet, my father would let us play, unchecked, except when there was an interment in progress, and provided we didn’t go past certain decibels in our games. Which is why we opted for stealth operations, commando style, and stuck to the older part of the cemetery where visitors were rare and new burials unheard of. Sound carries in the serene silence of a cemetery, and as I crept up on my imaginary enemies, I would hear my father and his men grunt under the weight of the heavy stones they had to manoeuvre into place, whistle popular tunes while they cemented, and crack jokes at the expense of the dead. Hallowed ground or not, it’s what you do when death is part and parcel of your daily routine – you let the children play, you laugh and you whistle; you make sure death knows life is here and not about to go.
There was, however, one part of the grounds which was strictly off limits – off limits for games; off limits for jokes; off limits for songs of any kind. When work had to be done in this section, dad and his men would doff their tight-fitting black berets, as if stepping into a church. It lay at the far end of the only road wide enough for a car or small truck to pass, the cemetery’s central alley, which ran straight from the gates all the way to the foot of a giant cross. But it wasn’t the cross and the agonising Christ that made hats come off. No. It was what lay around the cross, what rippled away from it in row after row of small graves fenced in by a neatly kept hedge.
The children’s cemetery.
This was truly Hallowed Ground.
I never played there. In fact, I only went in once or twice to look at the small, trunk-size graves, some plain, no more than a rectangle of bluestone ashlars surrounding a mound of earth with a simple cast iron cross at the head; others more elaborate, adorned with porcelain angels and cherubs or a Mother Mary and Child in relief.
As I said, I only went in once or twice. Somehow, it didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the giant cross and the tortured man looming over these little graves, crying out “why hast thou forsaken me” rather than benevolently saying “let the children come to me”.
Or maybe it was the dates carved on the crosses and marbled ledgers, some no more than days apart, and all of them too short.
“Don’t I ever catch you playing in here,” my father told me, and for once, I didn’t ask why.
Age ten, and I understood. This was truly Hallowed Ground.