One of my favourite things to do when I travel is visit cemeteries. There’s so much history in them, the graves often telling stories just with a few names and dates. Visiting one can be fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure. I always seek them out, especially older ones where the headstones aren’t all identical in appearance and the rows aren’t laser straight.
A couple of years ago, I visited the cemetery in Berchtesgaden, Germany. It was my favourite kind of graveyard, with a mix of new and old headstones of varying sizes, some simple and others elaborate. The newer ones were well-cared for, with flowers and candles in abundance, and were pristine and shiny. A lot of the older ones weren’t so shiny, though, as families have moved away or died out. I am always drawn to these ones, and on this day one in particular caught my eye. The writing on it was all but gone, the only readable name that of a woman named Maria, who died in 1936.
After exploring for some time, my friend Ron suggested it was time we leave. (He knew that, left to my own devices, I’d be there all day.) As we exited I noticed a contraption across the way and asked him, “Is that a vending machine for graveside candles?” Intrigued, we went to check, and sure enough, that’s what it was.
I have no real-world experience with cemeteries. I don’t do funerals, have never been to a graveside service, and the only person in my life who has passed away whose grave I might actually want to visit is my mother. Since she chose to be cremated, the furthest I have to go to see her is my library, where her urn sits nestled among the books. She was an avid reader who instilled a love of books in me, so I couldn’t think of a better final resting place for her.
What this means is that, for someone who spends a fair bit of time each trip I make in cemeteries, I have no idea of how they ‘work.’ This day I’d seen a lot of identical candles on a lot of graves, but it never occurred to me to wonder where they’d come from. The fact that there was a vending machine at the cemetery entrance blew my mind. Ron encouraged me to “Put in a euro and see what you get. It’s only a euro!” So I did.
And then I had a graveside candle I had to do something with. So I placed it on Maria’s neglected grave.
Later that evening, we were out on the hotel balcony, sitting in the dark having a drink and a chat while listening to the river, when I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to go back to the cemetery to light the candle on Maria’s grave. Ron figures it was the beer making me sentimental, and I’m sure it was. But my mother had died only a couple of months earlier, and I expect my grief was also at play.
Back in the cemetery, I lit the candle, kissed my fingertips and laid them on the gravestone, and told Maria that she’s not entirely forgotten.
I was a teary as we left the cemetery for the second time that day. And while I knew it made no sense, since she doesn’t even have a gravesite, I told Ron that I hoped that maybe in a hundred years somebody might do the same thing for my mother.
Rest in peace.