Many years ago, I volunteered to be the caretaker at a small cemetery near a church in the country. It was done in part in pity because I saw how run down the place was. It had suffered the same fate as many cemeteries in the USA whose communities had fallen on hard times – the only flowers were wild, thorns were as numerous as the ivy, and many of the stones were leaning or falling. It was situated on a hill, around a corner, and had a lovely view of the valley. It sported a forlorn and wild beauty.
Yesterday that cemetery came to mind as I was walking through another cemetery in Munich, Germany on All Saints’ Day. The Germans view, and therefore interact with, their cemeteries differently. The pathways are carefully groomed dirt or stone, the plots are marked off by stone curbs, and the graves within them are closely maintained, intricately decorated, and spotted with candles, flowers, ivy, sculpture, jewelry, mementoes, pictures, inscriptions and poems. On the days before All Saints’ Day, families come to the resting places of their members and groom, weed, and decorate the plots, not as a competition, but as a way of remembering and honoring their deceased family. Even on All Saints Day itself one can see a few people tidying up, carrying garden tools and water pails (taken from the communal racks in a corner of the cemetery) and new plants and candles.
Each little garden tells a story, sometime only visible to those who maintain it. But even a moderate curiosity will lead one to spend an hour walking among the rows of garden plots, each designed with a different aesthetic, reading the inscriptions and guessing at the joy and grief in the stories given life by each gardener’s choice.
And if it is Bavaria, there must be a parade. And so there is a parade of church officials, with incense, crosses, speeches, and blessings. They circle the cemetery, marking off the holy ground with measured steps and wreaths of smoke. And church members, now done with their gardening, follow, or wait and watch from the corners.
Thus they hallow the ground and the memory, and anchor themselves in the place, and among the great cloud of witnesses represented there. All Hallows Day indeed.