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Simplicity in death

I don’t know how I got there and I honestly doubt I could find my way there again, but somehow, when in Vilnius, I ended up in Bernadinu kapines (the Bernadine cemetery). Unlike others I’ve visited, I didn’t even know that this one existed. I was walking, looking for the old town. Turning down this street and that, completely lost, without a map. And then I saw a signpost … to the cemetery. I asked directions a couple of times but no-one knew where it was. And then I turned down this road, drawn by the flowers and through a gate saw a cottage, with some washing on the line, and then some crosses. And some more crosses. And then a sign saying it was the Bernadine Cemetery.

Founded in 1810 by the Bernadine monks (famous for breeding St Bernards for rescue work since the 1600s)  it’s now home to artists, academics, university professors and other ‘cultural workers’.  It shut its gates in 1970 and would seem to have remained unchanged since then. The paths are overgrown; the graves, too. The crosses are simple yet more effective than many more ornate headstones I’ve seen. As a cemetery, it has neither the magnficance of those in Zagreb nor the  grandure of those in  Malta. But perhaps its simplicity was what drew me there.

After all is said and done, what do we really need our tombstones to say? We lived, we died. And in that little dash in between those two dates, lies a lifetime. Who visits cemeteries any more? Tourists, like me, who share my fascination? Those still in mourning? I was the only one there that day. And by the looks of the graves, no-one had been there in quite some time.

I spent an hour or so wandering around, wondering. I came to no earth-shattering conclusions about life, the universe, or my place in it. I did, however, come away with a strange sense of peace – the first time I’d felt that in Vilnius, a city that unsettled me in more ways than one. And again, I wondered…

In June 2000, Felix Krasavin, a former Soviet-time political prisoner who now lives in Israel addressed a crowd of 5000 former Lithuanian political prisioners and deportees at the Vilnius Sports Arena. 2000. Just ten years ago. He said that Soviet Fascism killed more people than its German brother. I look at the books on my shelves and I see a gaping hole.

5 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    Interesting that when the major Victorian grave yards were set up in the UK, the intention was that long term they would become public spaces (parks). Its’ sad that the way a lot of them eventually turned out was as overgrown jungles that became playgrounds for kids (I was one of them) and a place for adult undesirables to hang out (maybe I became one of them!)…………this inevitably led to complaints and unsympathetic local authorities tidying up the cemeteries, It doesn’t take too many generations until nobody remembers any one buried in the grave yard………thus nobody to complain when the LA moves in with bulldozers……….some of the gravestones are moved to the edges and put on show, the others disapear, smashed under grassed areas and unfortunately because the works are undertaken by ……….lets continue to call them unsympathetic people, the trees in the centre of cemetery which will be a 100+ years old are also smashed down ,……… to be tidy and neat the unimaginative and unsympathetic LA people keep the trees around the perimeter, then a few seats are put in around some central lawned areas, which in my experience became boring but quiet spaces for drunks to gather at. You can see that when a town/city council is under pressure to create more car parking in the town centre, the old cemetery option is an easy and cheap one to grab……….in less than a 100 years this supposed sacred place disappears, a much needed green and wooded area in the centre of community has been ‘municipalised’, tidied up, tarmaced over and lost forever………..it would be interesting to debate why we have graveyards………….for the dead or for the living……..

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      It’s interesting. In Ireland we go to funerals as a mark of respect for those living. You might never have met the person who has died but you know their son or daughter or mother or father and so you go. In the UK, I found it the opposite – you go only if you knew the person who just died. The couple of funerals I attended (parents of friends) I got quite an ‘odd’ reception. Like funerals, I think graveyards are more for the living than for the dead.

      Mary Murphy http://www.stolenchild66.wordpress.com


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  1. […] simplest and most moving cemetery I’ve been to is the Bernadinu kapines in Vilnius, Lithuania. The most different perhaps the Alifakovac cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia and […]

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