Some say the act of burying the dead differentiates us from other animals. But how do the different ways we bury each other define us? For a while now I’ve been drawn to cemeteries, and the insights they offer into the way different cultures view death. Graveyards can be a sacred place of worship, a forgotten ground where donkeys roam about, or a casual spot for family picnics.
In traditional Vietnamese belief, if we take good care of our family members in the other world they will give us blessings in this world. So much so that the tombs in some parts of my country are significantly more ornate than houses of the living.
It is of utmost importance to bury your relatives’ remains in the family graveyard — something difficult given the circumstances during wartime. The TV screen of my childhood was filled with advertisements from people desperate to find the remains of their family members who had died in the war fifteen or twenty years earlier.
My family also lost a member to the war, my father’s eldest brother. They built a tombstone for my uncle in the family cemetery, and prayed on his empty grave every year until 2005. After thirty-seven years, my father successfully found his remains and brought him back home. My father considers this to be one of the biggest achievements in his life.
It’s indeed from here that sparked my interest in graveyards. If cemeteries are meant to link the dead and the living, then the German design certainly fulfills these terms. In contrast to the stern Vietnamese tombstones, the churchyards in Berlin are friendly and welcoming.
A typical cemetery has tall trees (linden, beech, pine and birch are the common ones), wide paths, taps, watering cans, benches and chairs for family members to come and look after their relatives’ last resting place. The graves are well spaced from each other, often covered with decorative plants, candles, stones and other memorial plaques. The grave markers boast an amazing variety. There are tombstones of various shapes, the materials can range from wood, to steel to concrete, to different kinds of stones — something worth a closer look in another post.
Just as how multicultural Berlin is, you can encounter many types of religions, beliefs in its cemeteries. You’ll find different branches of Christianity and their dedicated churchyards, Jewish graves, Muslim graves always facing Mecca… The memorials are written in Cyrillic alphabet, Arabic script, Hebrew, Chinese, Vietnamese and many others I’m yet to know.
Cemeteries in Xinjiang, far Western China are the polar opposite of German graveyards, at least in terms of aesthetics. The dominating colour here is the sand’s. No green tree is to be seen in this dry desert land. If German graves are reflective of individuality, Xinjiang’s seem to emphasise anonymity and uniformity.
The tomb markers are as simple as a wooden crib like fence or a rock on a mound of dirt. Later I heard that Islam looks upon beautification of the graves as blasphemy, since death means the end of a person in this world.
The idea initially seems foreign and hard to understand somehow grew in me. Walking through many cemeteries, part of me protested the idea of inequality even after death: the rich get the big beautiful grave, and the poor a small lump of dirt. Wouldn’t it be nice if we finally acknowledged that all men are equal, at last?
The motif of the crib-like shape for the grave is also present in Kyrgyzstan, the country bordering Xinjiang, but often in rusted metal.
The cribs stand along with the more elaborate big graves made out of mud or bricks, with the star and the crescent, a symbol widespread throughout Central Asia, stemmed from ancient worshipping of the Moon and the Sun gods, before it became an Islamic symbol.
The crib sometimes morphs into the yurt shape — national symbol of the nomadic Kyrgyz people. You could find many more amazing graves and interesting religious and historical insights from Margaret Morton’s ‘Cities of the Dead: the ancestral cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan’.
Just behind the grand mausoleum of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, where according to the legend, Kusam ibn Abbas — the prophet’s cousin — was buried, is a rather un-Islamic looking cemetery: tombstones with etched-in life-size portrait of the deceased. It is, or so I heard, an imported ritual from the Soviet time.
North of Samarkand, in the well preserved citadel of Khiva, the mud brick graves still blend into the sepia tone of the city’s wall, conforming the minimal rule of Islamic graves.
East Coast, Australia
Cemeteries I know and love around Sydney are mostly in a semi-ruined state like the overgrown Camperdown cemetery in the back streets of Newtown or the Coast cemetery in Little Bay, which was once was on the grounds of the Coast Hospital. It was the final resting place of smallpox and bubonic plague victims. Most gravestones are damaged, worn by the harsh ocean weather. Perhaps lying next to the largest rifle range of the Southern hemisphere isn’t an ideal spot for an eternal resting place?
Another family favourite is the Robertson cemetery, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. A tiny graveyard few kilometers out of town, along a dirt road, looking over the rolling hills.
But like any local would tell you, the cemetery looks best on a misty day, which luckily is not a rare occasion in this town.
I can't pretend to be an anthropologist or an ethnographer on cemeteries and burial rites, yet placing photos from different sites together is an interesting exercise. Are cemeteries humans’ last effort to remain above the ground? If tombstones’ ultimate purpose is to remind the living of the dead, wouldn't a Facebook timeline be a more complete grave mark? Or is there an innate need to pilgrim and pay tribute in a physical place?
Or should it all fade into oblivion? By the way, in most German cemeteries, the lease period for a burial site is about 25 years, with ability to extend. Twenty-five years after one’s death, is there still a need for mourning?