A cemetery is not something you travel to another country to see. Not usually, anyway. Maybe you stop by for an hour or two to stand at a grave of a long-dead celebrity, pay respect to fallen American soldiers of WWII as we did in Normandy, or explore a beautiful city of above-ground tombs in Buenos Aires. But when you let it be known that the entire point of your international trip is to visit a cemetery, people rightfully get concerned. And don’t try to follow that up by sending them pictures of your face painted as a skeleton while on this trip, they have already written you off as certifiably insane… But hold on! Let me explain.
The idea of planning an entire trip around exploring the culture of death and funerals has been long in the making. Almost every trip we took in the last ten years has given us at least a small window into the funeral customs of each country. After we went to India, where we watched bodies burn in a ritual ceremony at the shores of the murky Ganges, we didn’t think funeral services could ever phase us again. And so, as we planned our next year's big trip to Japan, we decided to spend two days in a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Koyasan, which happened to be located right next to Okunoin Cemetery, the largest graveyard in the entire country. In fact, one of the prominent activities advertised by the monastery, besides 5 am prayer chants and a fully vegetarian menu, were late-night strolls through the forested path among beautiful headstones lit by lanterns. And as much as I love telling “this is what we thought would happen and this is what actually happened” stories, this time and maybe this time only, everything went exactly to plan. The cemetery was vast with fascinating headstones, carved figures, ancient torii gates, tall cedar, and pine trees, and lanterns lighting our path as daylight slowly dimmed around us. There was nothing spooky or scary about this cemetery, it resembled a magical forest wonderland rather than a grim graveyard. It was hard to imagine that anyone was even buried here, as strange as it sounds. We walked well into the night and only the thought of a 5 am wakeup time for morning prayer chants finally convinced us to head back.
A year later, in the small village of Mickleton, U.K., we were desperately looking for a pub. Now, this really shouldn’t be a hard task anywhere in the U.K., but we were on a small farm, surrounded by woods and fields and it was quickly getting dark. We asked our gracious hosts for directions and they waved us towards an open field.
“Five-minute walk!” they exclaimed, “Cross the field, then through the gate to the churchyard, from there to a small alley and you will pop right out by the Kings’ Arms Pub! Best pub in the U.K.!”
And so off we went, across the field, trying to avoid dark silhouettes of horses occasionally emerging from the darkness. We found the gate to the churchyard and carefully undid the latch using my phone’s flashlight. As we stumbled in the darkness towards the church, Victor suddenly stopped in his tracks. “What is it?” I asked.
"Graves,” Victor said. “We are in a graveyard.”
I squinted through the darkness.
There were gravestones on the left of our path, somber dark crosses, and a statue of an angel with folded hands and wings. The shadowy silhouette of the church, the almost complete silence surrounding us, and the slowly stirring trees added the finishing touches to this unexpected horror-movie scenario. We stood still, too afraid to move.
“It’s just a five-minute walk…” I whispered, reminding myself.
“Through a cemetery!” Victor breathed out.
We stood, listening to the trees rustle in the darkness and the far-away noises of horses, calling to each other.
“Hold on…” I said suddenly. “A year ago we walked all night through a Japanese cemetery. We weren’t afraid there.”
“It’s different,” Victor said. And he was right, it was different, even though at that very moment neither of us could explain how. Later, the only explanation that occurred to me is that this was a Christian cemetery and Christians have ghosts and even though I am not a Christian or believe in ghosts, one must respect the ghost culture after all…
Somehow I managed to take the two very bad pictures posted above before we finally decided to forge forward. We made it through the cemetery in a very undignified half-running manner and out into a narrow alley where we came head-to-head with a small group of cheerful people, clearly on their way from a pub. They confirmed the location of the pub for us and, joyfully singing, proceeded to trample toward the church’s graveyard. Clearly, the natives didn’t dwell too much on their superstitions.
After a nice late-night meal and a beer, we went back to our AirBnB… by taking a long detour through well-lit main streets. Neither of us had any intention of going back to that cemetery in the dark ever again.
Last year, we were in Cambodia, somberly standing in front of a memorial stupa, filled to the brim with human bones and skulls, a shrine to the millions of dead during the Khmer Rouge regime. In the broad daylight, the skulls gleamed behind the glass, exposed, a cry from the past - “This is what happened here. This is what they have done to us.” There is something so troubling in seeing human bones exposed like this, something unnatural. These bones will never be buried or burned or drowned, they will always be here for everyone to see, to hear their warning, to contemplate human nature. The ghosts in this place are not hiding in the dark, they are out in the open, screaming into the faces of the living.
I have contemplated this for a while, how each culture treats its dead and how my own superstitions about death color my experiences in other countries. I have stood at the simple grave of Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise covered with lush ivy and walked the streets of an elegant necropolis in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I saw the stark rows of Kanchanaburi War graves in Thailand and colorful almost dollhouse-like monuments in Guatemala’s cemeteries. I may have, over the years, became a little obsessed with how differently death is treated in various parts of the world. And this is why visiting Mexico during the Day of the Dead to see yet another fascinating take on death and mourning has always been on top of my list. While it may be seen as strange dedicating four days in Mexico to Dia de Los Muertos celebrations, these four short days gave us a new perspective into Mexican culture we never glimpsed before.