Monday, November 04, 2013

I See Dead People

My time in Huntsville proved to be unexpectedly eclectic, however my initial reason for visiting was simply to visit the prisoners' cemetery, where all those who die whilst in the "care" of the Texas justice system, and whose bodies are not claimed by family, are buried. Now it may seem like a macabre thing to visit, but I found it a sobering and important place to have seen. The cemetery is surprisingly large, unadorned and unmarked, occupying a wasteland between two nondescript roads on the edge of town. No signs announce or inform the passer-by as to the site's identity, no fence separates it from its surroundings. Every expense has been spared. So much so that up until 2000 the graves were marked by a simple concrete cross inscribed with a date of death and prisoner number. Nothing more. Not even a name by which the deceased could be remembered. As if in death these people are no longer considered humans but simply numbers, a burden to be placed in the ground, a sack of shit that has the temerity to waste our tax-payer dollars.

A sea of concrete crosses devoid of any embellishments or even names to distinguish them, just a date and a prisoner number. According to Dostoevsky a society can be judged by how well it treats its prisoners, in which case America ought to perhaps take a look at itself.

I love cemeteries, they're fascinating places. Often, if you care to look closely, they can tell you stories of a past that isn't written in history books, or is actively ignored or suppressed, or that is simply more personal and human than can possibly be conveyed on paper. So I'm taking this opportunity to take on a tour of some of my favourite graveyards, tombs, sepulchres and mausoleums (mausolea) and the hidden stories they tell.

This cemetery is tucked away behind the beautiful church in the medieval town of Sighisoara, in the very heart of Romania. There's not a single Romanian buried there. That's because up until the end of WWII much of Transylvania was mainly German (or Hungarian). Of the Germans that did remain after the war many left following the fall of communism, so one of the few tangible reminders of their 800 year history in the region.

This gravestone is located in the WWII servicemen's cemetery in Ambon, Indonesia. Most of the graves are of soldiers and sailors from Australia and Britain, but a small section is home to the remains of Indian troops, both Hindu and Muslim, who also fought on the Allied side

The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India. Located in the north of Karnataka state off the main tourist trail the town gets few visitors, however this giant mausoleum (at 44m the dome was only surpassed by Florence's Duomo when it was built) of the Adil Shahi dynasty is a testament to the period of cultural flowering that preceded the Mughal domination

A beautiful testament to our common humanity. This Japanese cemetery is located in Sandakan, East Malaysia, and dates from the occupation of the region by the Japanese during WWII. Despite the negative history, the graves are still maintained and looked after.

Old Jewish graves in Sharhorod, which used to be one of the largest shtetls in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in what is now Ukraine. Today there are no more Jews left, the synagogue has been abandoned (after an incarnation as a liquor factory during the Soviet period), and the cemetery is a loose collection of gravestones tumbling down an overgrown hillside. Yet their presence a long history of Hasidic Judaism in the region.

It's no secret that Japan's a country where space is at a premium. Not only do people live in what would pass for a medium-sized walk in cupboard in Texas, but they pack their dead pretty tight too.

There is a row of Parks and Kims in the main cemetery outside the Shah-i Zinda complex. Most of the gravestones have Tajik or Uzbek names, but this small group tells a story all of its own. When the Soviet Union was created many of its minorities were forcibly relocated so as not to be a nuisance or harbour dreams of secession.

The following three photos all come from the same cemetery in L'viv and beautifully illustrate its heritage as a mixed city, at the confluence of many different cultures (but also at the same time the source of tensions as different groups claim the city as their "own").

A German soldier who died on the Eastern front.

A Polish lady of the bourgeoisie who died in the late 19th century.

The Soviet gymnast Viktor Chukarin, who dominated the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

And in archaeology perhaps the majority of research and findings come from examining tombs, either from the grave goods or the bodies themselves. In a sense here the dead really do speak to us and inform us of what life was like back then.

Owl sceptre top from the Lord of Sipan tomb complex, the richest and most complete funerary site in all of South America, its discovery shone a spotlight onto pre-Incan civilisations in Peru.

And last, but by certainly no means least, my favourite cemetery.

The Merry Cemetery in Săpânța, northern Romania. The oeuvre of a single carpenter who, with bright colours and humourous verses, transformed what is usually a place of grim mourning, to a joyous affirmation of life.

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