Elizabeth Culhane

Elizabeth Culhane is a writer and graduate theology student living in Melbourne, Australia. She also helps teach a theology class to former refugees, and tweets @e_culhane.

Remembering, Divisions, and Dust

Fenced by rusty Victorian iron-work, the bluestone buildings and deciduous trees of the Melbourne General Cemetery are well-kept relics of nineteenth-century Melbourne. The grieving and the curious enter through stately gates. Smooth paths veer to the left and right, inviting all into a vast expanse, a necropolis of graves and memorials of every size and stature, squares of stone divided into neat sections.

What do the sections mean? Are the graves separated according to age, divided by decades? No. As I traverse the avenue, the distinct identities of different groups become apparent.

In one section, smooth stones have been artfully assembled upon the flat plane of each tomb. Above the stones, each tombstone features succinct rows of gleaming rectangular letters, like the sun’s radiance upon a gray plane. The heaviness of stone upon stone makes these graves seem still, restful. The stones link the deceased to their father, Jacob, who gathered stones and named them Galeed, meaning “the heap of witness.”

In contrast, the next set of tombs is noisy with lengthy text and inscriptions and abundant vivid flowers, artificial and real. Marble edifices are ubiquitous, along with twin graves of husband and wife united beyond death. Spousal portraits on headstones turn toward one another. Vibrant toys are scattered about by visiting grandchildren, an invitation to Yia Yia and Papou to join in a game.

Thus belief differences outlive bodies. Religious affiliation separates them from their contemporaries, neat pavement delineating diversity, the cemetery’s site plan reflecting Australia’s migration policies.

The cemetery’s topography also varies. Some memorials have many towers and statues, stretching higher and higher above each other, pale edifices competing for the sun. Others are more circumspect. Inconspicuous iron frames, mere centimeters from the ground, envelope discrete rectangles of grass, demarcating each resting place. The rising turrets convey respect for the deceased, yes, but also possibly a desire for family notoriety by the still-living installers. Or if planned by the departed, perhaps the extensive marble structure was designed as permanent home and aid to memory in a time-shifting world. These robust structures protest against the notion of mortals as like grass/they flourish like a flower of the field/the wind blows over it and it is gone/and its place remembers it no more. The wind will bluster against the stone, but cannot blow it away.

The cemetery also houses an imposing granite mausoleum. Vases of flowers lie behind its locked gates; some fresh and flourishing, others ravished by the harsh Australian sun. One hot summer’s day, a black BMW pulls up to it. An elegantly-dressed woman, perhaps in her mid-forties, swiftly exits the car. The gates are quickly opened, the flowers swapped. The gates are re-locked and the car glides away.

Later, when the smell of the exhaust subsides, I glance through the bars to the photos and tributes inside. Row after row of faces beam, a family wall declaring their past and future unity. Their collective rest suggests lives lived as an ensemble, a flock, a company.

The sustained effort of remembering is facilitated not only by graves, plaques, statues and memorials, but also by rituals of time and space. The flowers and their vitality keep alive a life completed. Other deceased lives are sustained through the burning light of a candle, prayers that transcend the living/dead disjunction, songs that voice the departed’s living, present, presence.

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

In The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf notes the importance of memory in contemporary western societies. He observes that our fast-paced lives make it easy to forget, saying, “As the media nail us to a narrow strip of the extended present…the past seems like a landscape viewed from a fast-moving train – a blur that quickly fades to black.” He also notes that while we frenetically gaze ahead, we are simultaneously obsessed with memorializing, “to counter the slipping of the past into oblivion.” We are terrified of the past being forgotten, lost, annihilated.

And yet even photos, acts of remembrance, and the iron and stone of giant family edifices will not evade the weathering effects that weakened the bodies beneath them. When the mourner herself passes away, who will sustain the rituals of remembering her beloved in the mausoleum? In the cemetery grounds, weeds encroach over some of the tombstones; the place starts to remember them no more. Slowly, the wind erodes epitaphs. The carefully chiseled descriptions become illegible, and their referents anonymous. Precipitation and the transient earth shift even the heaviest granite grave lids, undermining the seemingly enduring stone. The movement tears the lids apart, as if the corpses have escaped their stone enclosures, deciding that six feet under was not their final dwelling place. Perhaps they too wanted to stroll around the cemetery in step with the living.

To dust we are/and to dust we shall return. Despite the best efforts of site planners, even the corporeal belief-based separations may cease. For the dust of the departed breaks free from their cracked tombs, intermingling in the air swirling the grounds, happily transcending the paved divisions.

Whether one is not going gentle into that good night or content to slip away quietly, graves speak of their owner’s beliefs about ephemerality and eternality, notoriety and anonymity. All endeavor to keep the dead alive, introducing them to each future generation. But the transiency of the tombs themselves suggests that a life rises, breaks, then fades away; significant but unable to be immortalized in stone, brick and iron.

But, in the meantime, I am particularly captured by one grave. Tucked at the end of a long row, a single, crumbling tombstone reads: Mary, my beloved wife. 1910. Unextravagant, the antithesis of a Taj Mahal. A love excessive in non-opulence. Until silenced by erosion and decay, it quietly declares its abundance to anyone willing to listen.