I have a picture of my grandparents. It’s England 1939, about a month before the beginning of WWII and two years before they were married and Grandad is leaning to Grandma, with an arm around her waist. They stand among headstones. They’d been walking and detoured to look for Grandad’s ancestor in the shadow of a ruined abbey. It’s one of my favourite photos of them and represents a memory they reflected upon fondly.
Post war, their lives turned towards Australia. Their favourite places became the early colonial towns where the architecture reminded them of their old home. And they would wander around the graveyards of strangers and my brother and I would follow. I especially loved the old graves (although not old by world standards), I loved their form, their history, I wondered about the stories and the lives of these people and I’d read the names (of course I’d read the names), and felt sad if the graves were small or they died young and marvelled if they reached their nineties. I presumed the oblong patches of grass were vacancies until my grandparents pulled me to the edges and told me to respect the unmarked graves.
Of course, I don’t mean to speak as though my grandparents had taken us specifically to the cemetery. These meanderings were incidental, the end to a picnic or the prelude to an ice cream on our way to the shops, but I look back on those times with affection. Perhaps then, my fascination for graveyards is both innate and learned. I still like them. Not in the way I like beaches or The Muppet Show or coffee, but if I’m walking near a church, I’ll generally take a stroll through the cemetery. Sadness never dominates, my residing emotion is a feeling of sanctuary. Which is probably weird.
I probably had no cause to fear them or find them morbidly spooky. Although much of my childhood anxiety centred around losing those I loved, I was fortunate enough to reach my twenties before I truly experienced this kind of loss. My observations of death up until this point belonged to others. A classmate at school lost her grandfather. A friend’s dog died. A cross at the roadside that stood on the third or the fourth bend on a winding road that I observed for at least a decade. Small. Lovingly tended. And although now lost to time, my eyes still seek it when I pass. I still think of those who maintained it for all of those years and carried the loss.
It’s curious sometimes how seemingly obscure moments can make such an impression and even shape who you become. As a collector of things sometimes I feel like a keeper of old cemeteries. That somehow by seeing these old headstones or treading the perimeter of nameless graves, I am for a moment acknowledging they existed, respecting their place in the passage of time. And maybe graveyard wandering led to my interest in genealogy that strangely took me full circle, back to the cemeteries I wandered in my childhood to discover the ancestors of my Irish past.