Why cemeteries are unsung urban oases of calm
As a stonemason’s daughter, churchyards and cemeteries played a pretty part in my childhood. Indeed, the wall of our village church was roughly 50 m from my childhood bedroom window, with a bevy of older graves in between. I saw the choir arrive for practice and watched the army of ladies who decorated the church on high days and holidays carry in armloads of flowers and foliage. The Christmas nativity was another highlight night with the arrival of Flash; the donkey who was trundled over from a neighbouring farm to carry Mary down the aisle – but on those nights I was on the inside of the church savouring the atmosphere and waiting to see whether Flash would suddenly poop at the alter. It had been known.
But the churchyard was much more than just a pathway to the vestry door. Burial grounds are a whole world of bygone folk, but also the workplace of priests, gravediggers, gardeners and stonemasons. I spent many an afternoon watching my father engrave and erect gravestones; the rhythmic dunk of his wooden mallet against the metal chisel echoing gently between the graves, providing much the same ambience as a woodpecker’s knock-knock-knock on a summer’s day. It was fitting for the environs. It soothed. Even the letters that slowly spelled out the name of the latest lost soul, the dates of birth and death, and the socially obligatory message from loved ones held a beauty that can only be found in true craftsmanship. In this case hand-cut letters, carved with an inner-angle to withstand the elements for a longer period of time, then drilled with tiny holes into which the lead would be banged and the excess shaved away. Or daubed with sticky size paint before being brushed with gold leaf that came in small booklets. On windy days the gold could blow right off the page, sending tiny golden fairy flecks twirling into the air. I was enchanted while my father chuntered at the waste. Weather-beaten headstones, of course, were more difficult to make out but held a different charm. They were old and their occupants had lived in another age and time. These good and bad folk could tell stories we could only read of.
By default, cemeteries are outdoor libraries in a way. They offer plenty of opportunity to read a little local history in a play-free zone in the midst of a hushed reverence to those around us.
Last weekend I was sitting in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I know – Norra Begravningsplats (Norra Kyrkogården) in Stockholm. It’s one of the largest in Sweden and the final resting place of many Swedish icons such as Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Nobel and August Strindberg. It’s a perfect mix of tended grass and natural woodland areas. Graves nestle around the trees, some in the shade, some in the sun. Larger monuments and vaults are scattered throughout, as are carefully selected works of art in the form of statues and sculptures.
I was sitting on a bench in the Garden of Remembrance. My face to the sun and eyes closed, I breathed in the peace. The calm. If I listened very carefully, I could hear the city traffic in the distance, but the real sounds were the birds, the bees and the breeze in the trees, plus the very occasional sound of quiet footsteps and low voices. The fragrance of summer flowers added to the perfection of a moment to reflect.
I can pop into any churchyard or cemetery to borrow a little peace to be close to my loved ones. To miss, to remember and to think. To mull over a dilemma or decide. Or simply just to be. Because how often do we allow ourselves just to be? Sure, we can meditate, jog, nap. But I find cemeteries as soothing as an isolated seashore, and decidedly more convenient to find in an urban area.
Try it sometime. Find a bench in a beautiful spot away from the perimeter then just sit, and breathe. Or walk the pathways and let your thoughts wander. You might be pleasantly surprised where they take you. I am. Every time.