Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's a Spooky Halloween Gordon Guest-Post

I really, really like cemeteries. Actually, I don't find them spooky at all - except perhaps when visited at night, with mist wafting around the chill air, and owls calling out through the blackness.

I've gone out of my way to see a lot of them. I like the local such as the very modest grave of famous explorer Simon Fraser who gets a great river and university named after him out west but back east rests just down the road from me in a tiny pioneer plot, long neglected but recently fixed up.

I'm also fascinated by the exotic, like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries I've visited in Stanley, Hong Kong, Kanchanaburi and Chungkai, Thailand, Kranji, Singapore, and even Gander, Newfoundland (a tiny plot beside the edge of the airfield, largely for crashed fliers). I have searched for Evita's grave in La Ricoleta Cemetery of Buenos Aires (unsuccessfully, but it does have some of the fanciest crypts anywhere on or under the earth), and Marx's grave in London's Highgate Cemetery (successfully, but somehow I expected more than a medium-sized rectangular granite block with a likeness of his head on top, too big to be socially egalitarian, but too small to embody his global influence).

I've heard about colonial elephant stompings bringing an untimely end to colonial ambitions in the British Garrison Cemetery of Kandy, Sri Lanka, and inter-tribal warfare leading to endings among the Batak people of Lake Toba, Sumatra (okay, I couldn't find any cemetery photos, but I linked to a few shots of the area by someone who knows how to take a photo).

Among the most atmospheric cemeteries I have ever visited are those of Lithuania. At Saules Kapines one finds an organized riot of green natural growth, grey headstones, and mountain goat paths winding through a splendor of eastern crosses. In the first photo of the posting you see the entrance to this parish cemetery of the nearby magnificent St. Peter and St. Paul's Church. Below, the graves cascading down a hillside.

My favourite grave markers were beautiful intricately carved wooden monuments like the one below, which seemed to mix elements of Baltic Viking mythology, Christianity, and naturalist fantasy.
You can test your Lithuanian language skills on the entrance plaque for Saules Kapines.

Nearby is the much more famous Antakalio Kipines, mainly a military cemetery, where you find the last resting places of scores of Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Germans and others stretching over two centuries. So many graves from so many conflicts, it's hard to sort out who fell at the hand of whom, and even more difficult to figure out why. Because of its central location among traditional European powers, conflict has unfortunately washed over usually less powerful Lithuania time after time (notwithstanding the rather powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania period), with Lithuanians before forced to take sides for or against the latest invaders - and not always agreeing on whom to support.

Here is another of those great carved wooden monuments, this one with a much more military focus on the Second World War (you can spot the 1941-1945 half way down the inscription).

And here is the most imposing of the monuments in the cemetery, to the Soviet dead between 1941-1945. Those statues may look a little small in the perspective of the photo, but in reality they are huge!


In the plaza leading up to the statues there are lots of collective memorial tablets, organized by military unit including partizan brigades. The 1943-44 period appears to have been a particularly tough time.

While the Lithuanians keep all areas of the cemetery in an immaculate state, they have decided to snuff out the Soviet eternal flame at the base of those giant socialist-realist statues.

In the next close-up, you see the statues recognize both female (nursing) and male (combat) war roles, faces permanently set in equally grim determined resolve.


The Lithuanians also appear to have removed spot lights set on surrounding hillsides which would have bathed those statutes in a stony night time ethereal glow.

I found the most moving part of the cemetery to be the wooded hillside filled with Polish graves from 1919-20, each carefully bedecked with its own ribbon in Poland's national colours. The graves were the result of the Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Soviet Wars.

Wandering aimlessly around as I tend to do in cemeteries (there is a reason I never found Evita's tomb), I never know what I might come across, like this memorial to early Soviet airmen placed off in a corner far away from the Soviet WWII graves.

The part of the cemetery with the most current national significance, seen above, dates from what is known as the January Events of 1991, and contains the graves of the civilians who died in clashes with Soviet troops over Lithuania's assertion of independence. Each grave is laid out around a semi-circle courtyard, with a single sculpture of the dead being comforted (seen in the upper left of the photo) watching over them.

Though the cemetery mostly had a smattering of foreign tourists present when I visited, it's reassuring to know that the local old and young still visit now and then to commemorate and remember what was, and what could be again.

10 comments:

  1. Hmmm... anyone else think it's time Gordon got his own blog?!

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  2. Anonymous7:07 pm

    I think he should consider it!

    i'm also fascinated by graveyards. As you guys know, puebla has a GREAT one. I wanted to see the jewish one in prague but was too cheap the pay the entrance fee (yes there was one). however, i could look in ... fascinating!

    these pics and your entry was excellent G! really interesting .. I need more time to digest it all and to follow the links.

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  3. Some of the graveyards in NY are amazing for their sculptures alone! I could spend hours in a graveyard too! Amazing photos, Gordon!!

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  4. Cool photos! Our town here in Texas was founded by German immigrants in the 1840's. Some of the local historians lead guided tours of the largest cemetery several times throughout the year.

    There is also a small family graveyard just a few yards from the county hiway that I frequently travel. I often say "hello" in my mind to the folks when passing by. Once or twice a year family members come and clean the gravesites. It always makes me feel better to see things all spruced up again.

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  5. Yes, Gordon, it's time. You have a lot to contribute to bloglanders: solid writing and great photos. Did you ever visit Pere Lachaise?

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  6. I too, Gordon, love cemeteries. I visited The Woodlawn cemetery in New York which has some of the most grandiose mausoleums for their most famous residents. The original Helmsley's, the Woolworths and Astors.
    One of the cooler sites: Miles Davis who is right beside Duke Ellington.

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  7. Those were beautiful and moving photos!

    I've always enjoyed visiting cemetaries, not out of any morbid impulse, but because there is so much peace and history to be found among the stones.

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  8. You should see my photos of Notre-dame-des-neiges cemetery at http://www.nicholas.robinson.name/photos.html

    (Among others)

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  9. I love cemetaries and try to stop whenever I pass one, time allowing. These pictures and explanations are amazing. I have never seen gravestones like the ones pictured here. Wow, I need to get out more!

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  10. Thanks for all your kind comments.

    Gordon

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Thank you for all your comments, which I love to read!