Friday 8th April 2011, 1524 BST – Sat on a bench over looking the Lawn Garden in Glyntaff Cemetery, Pontypridd.
It is a beautiful, sunny, warm spring day. There are bumble bees busily buzzing around on their business. Birds are tweeting, the corvids are cawing. The Friday afternoon traffic on the nearby A470 is a loud hum in the background.
I find cemeteries peaceful places to visit amongst the hubub of the modern world; the sounds of the living, man-made world fade into the background and the sounds of nature have a chance to come to the fore.
Today, especially after such a busily manic week at work, I find it peaceful to sit here after a brisk walk through the older part of the cemetery, with a chance to sit and write my reflections on being here, now. I must admit that I’m finding the Sun a tad bright and warm!
As I walked through the old part, I noticed that many of the gravestones are now leaning at odd angles, and some of the taller ones have even shattered thanks to the endless work of the elements. What once must have been a very orderly, regimented citadel of the dead now looks quite higgledy piggledy with drunken looking weeping angels, architectural chess pieces lopsidedly discarded after a long-ago game, veiled urns looking most precarious on the top of their columns.
Some thirty six years ago, I used to walk to and from school through this cemetery. I’m sure some of the monuments were lopsided, but perhaps as a younger person I didn’t pay that much attention to them. I found the names and places interesting, the weeping angels bemused me, and the Jewish section was something that was hidden and secretive to discover as if by surprise, I read the pages that were open in the Book of Remembrance, and the columbarium was somewhere to quietly pop into and browse through everything there with a sense of spooky wonder. I spent time reading the tags on the floral tributes and flowers left after someone had been cremated, wondering what kind of a person they were, what they did in life, what they would be most remembered for. I never plucked up enough courage, however, to look in one of the two chapels at the crematorium.
On nice days I’d stop on my way home and sit and just listen to the quietness. On gloomy days I’d linger on my way home enjoying the different ‘feel’ of the cemetery. In the Winter I’d be walking to and from school in near darkness and I was never scared of my walk through the cemetery, though I admit to feeling a bit nervous about being stuck in there in the night on my own.
I still find cemeteries interesting places to visit – the older the better, especially when the gravestones tell something of the life of the person whose mortal remains are at rest beneath it. They are havens of peace and quiet in a turbulent, hectic, loud, rushed world.
As I sit on the bench in the sunshine today, I ponder the change in the memorials erected over the remains of the once living. Many are small, almost insignificant in nature, simple statements of who was interred in this plot of hallowed ground. Some are even simpler with a rusted, weathered iron marker with a number on marking the grave, with no clue as to who is eternally sleeping beneath the covering of green grass. Why has no one erected some kind memorial for them?
Others are grander, erections of various heights pointing heavenwards as if showing the direction that the souls of the deceased should take to find their eternal and hallowed home amongst the heavenly hosts. Or are they a very visible and strong statement that that is where the souls have gone, even if you don’t think they have having worked under their iron hand in the early industries of the area. Perhaps the loftiness of the memorial is some kind of testament to the importance of that person while they were alive, to their family at least. Maybe a kind of one-upmanship to those whose pitifully smaller memorials surround them. Some of the largest are huge obelisk-like structures that seem to be like the finger that is used to punctuate the rhetoric of a political orator/activist as they proclaim ‘That’s where I am, that’s where I deserve to be’.
Or perhaps it is a sign that their true legacy, their descendants who share familial DNA, no longer feel a connection to them, to their past, and see no point in spending their own hard earned cash on the upkeep of a monument that means nothing to them. The ancestors were laid to rest, now their monuments are, in many cases, laid to rest on top of them as they become unstable and unsafe to leave upright. In the past people spent money on ensuring their souls would find a place in heaven, working hard on attending church each week and donating to the funds of the parish believing this would guarantee them a place in heaven.
What God do their descendants worship, I wonder? Is it a deity of materialism whose churches are the malls and shop-filled streets and out of town retail parks and the altars are the checkout tills? Consumerism seems to rule, where designer labels and having the right look count for everything. Pleasure in the now is the thing, because another visit to the church of consumerism will provide another fix as the offering is handed over at the till. Where is the attention to what lies within each of us; where is the acknowledgement that we are each more than what is on the outer surface? Is the emptiness that each of us can feel being filled by consumption of one external things of kind or another – possessions, clothes, food, drink, sex, drugs, and so on – rather than by us finding ways of filling the emptiness from within us?
As I sit here and look around at the more modern gravestones, memorial plaques and various memorials there is a change over time. Those in the past, though varying in height and sculptural complexity, have a restrained approach to the words displayed about the people whose remains are interred beneath them. Over time, the words have become more sentimental, more openly emotional. The memorials themselves have, in many places, become more showy, some even gaudy, to attract the attention of anyone who passes by. Grief, loss, emotions are becoming displayed more and more publicly.
I wonder if this goes hand in had with the way society seems to be more concerned about how someone looks than what is beneath the displayed front. I wonder if all the words were said to the person while they were alive, or is this show one that masks a kind of guilt that the words and sentiments weren’t shown to the person while they were alive and they are trying to make it up now with this display. Has the death of the person made them realise just how much they cared for them and now they feel they need to say all that wasn’t said? Is it guilt because they didn’t care for the person perhaps as much as they should have? Is it another kind of one-upmanship where the message is ‘we cared more about our relative than you do because we’ve covered their grave with flowers and toys and balloons and windmills and candles and artificial flowers and sculptures of the saints’?
Am I cynical? Yes, I am, but I do find it interesting to muse about what funereal practices show about us as a society. I may be horribly wrong of course, and these are just personal observations from one who is uncomfortable with her own emotions and showing them. No offence is meant, and comments or observations are welcomed.
Just as I was about to get up and leave, a beautiful butterfly landed close to my feet. It folded it’s wings up, basking in the warm spring sunshine and remained with me for what seemed like many minutes. Eventually, it spread it’s wings and launched itself into the air and the wind, carrying on about its business. Moments like this bring great pleasure to me, moments when nature is unafraid to be close to me.
It was quite apt that it was a butterfly that kept me company as the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly via the resting phase of the chrysalis is seen as a metaphor for the rebirth of the soul after the physical body dies.
In Britain, Europe, North America and the Pacific, the butterfly was a symbol of the soul and it’s attraction to the light. It was often thought that the human soul left the body in the form of a butterfly.
In Gaelic areas it was said the soul of a newly dead person could sometimes be seen hovering over the corpse in the form of a butterfly.
As an aside, I never knew some of an episode of the new Dr Who series was filmed here!