When I was a little girl, I’d hold my breath as we drove by a cemetery. It was some superstition I’d heard of and I practiced it religiously along with avoiding cracks in the sidewalk and not passing anyone on a set of stairs. All of these habits, I believed, would ensure a long and prosperous life. But when I got a little older, curiosity about death outweighed superstition and I ventured into graveyards as often as I could. Now, when I travel, a tombstone tour of any city is a must.
I stayed a month in Paris a few years ago and lived in the 14th arrondissement, not far from Montparnasse cemetery. I spent hours admiring the ornate headstones and elaborate tributes to the dead. This cemetery is the eternal home of many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite. Philosophers and authors, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, playwright Samuel Beckett and one of my favourite French poets, Charles Baudelaire, are all buried at Montparnasse. Their grave sites are relatively understated but there are others within this cemetery that are dramatic in scale and decoration. Montparnasse is more like an inspirational art gallery than a sombre cemetery.
In South America, I was fascinated by columbaria. Ecuadorians preserve the memories of loved ones in small cubic spaces. Visualize a community mailbox. The delivery? Urns full of ashes. Cremated remains are protected inside square openings called niches. It’s a practice that dates back to ancient Rome. The term columbarium comes from the Latin word ‘columba’, which means dove. A columbarium was used as compartmentalized housing for doves or pigeons. Doves are symbols of peace and peace is, I suppose, what you ultimately want for a loved one who has passed. It is a much more pleasing image than a mailbox full of unopened mail.
One of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever visited sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery was built outside the walls of the Fort San Felipe del Morro Fortress. The fortification was built in the 16th century to protect San Juan Bay from attacks by water. The cemetery lies below the fortress and was constructed in 1863. At that time, the Spanish colonial government felt the location symbolized the spirit’s symbolic journey across the sea into the afterlife.
The day I visited, there was a kite festival on the grounds above Santa Maria Magdalena. Young school children, full of life, were running and laughing as their colourful kites danced high above the entrance to the cemetery.
I descended a narrow roadway with high cement walls covered in spray paint. Luckily, the irreverence of the vandals appeared to stop at the gates of Santa Maria Magdalena. Inside, bright white marble butted up against an endless blue ocean. I felt encouraged to see a respectful care taker pressure washing dirt away from headstones, in an older section of the cemetery. The Puerto Ricans laid to rest here were gone but not forgotten.
Please see the photos from my visit to Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis in the photo gallery.
It is late fall. Decaying leaves are falling to the ground and we’re coming up on Halloween. Zombies and ghosts hang in windows and on doors. If one was prone to think about death, it might be now.
I was out for a run the other day and jogged through a cemetery in downtown St. John’s. One of the headstones near the entrance had engraved the family name 'Downer'. “No kidding,” I thought, as I picked up the pace.
Okay, enough about the final journey, we travelers have so much more to see and do!
Let me leave you with more cheerful thoughts from a poem by that French poet I mentioned.
Charles Baudelaire wrote “Enivrez-Vous”.
To find joy, he says, live life to the fullest, celebrate and get drunk! (English translation below.)
"Enivrez-Vous” (“Get Drunk”)
Il faut être toujours ivre.
Tout est là:
c’est l’unique question.
Pour ne pas sentir
l’horrible fardeau du Temps
qui brise vos épaules
et vous penche vers la terre
il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.
Mais de quoi?
De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise.
Et si quelquefois
sur les marches d’un palais
sur l’herbe verte d’un fossé
dans la solitude morne de votre chambre
vous vous réveillez
l’ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue
demandez au vent
à la vague
à tout ce qui fuit
à tout ce qui gémit
à tout ce qui roule
à tout ce qui chante
à tout ce qui parle
demandez quelle heure il est;
et le vent
“Il est l’heure de s’enivrer!
Pour n’être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps,
enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.”
You have to be always drunk.
That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way.
So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch
in the mournful solitude of your room
you wake again
drunkenness already diminishing or gone,
ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock
everything that is flying
everything that is groaning
everything that is rolling
everything that is singing
everything that is speaking. . .
ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:
“It is time to be drunk!
So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk!
On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
- Charles Baudelaire
I say, let’s drink to the love of travel.
Until next time, rove on.