An ode to graveyards

An Cailín Rua

HISTORY LESSON Leigue Cemetery in Ballina offers a vast space in which to wander, and a walk here is a history lesson in itself. Pic: John Joyce

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Some people have nice hobbies. They paint and they cook and they draw and they do yoga and they build things. Other people like to do nice things on their holidays, like going to museums and trying out an activity and maybe eating in a nice restaurant. Me? I visit graveyards.
My week is rarely complete without a visit to a cemetery somewhere, be it home or away.  The familiarity of a stroll around the local resting place is soothing, but there’s an odd enjoyment to be found in exploring the pathways and makers of a new one.
It’s a strange one, this pastime. A bit macabre, probably. Definitely unusual. Although I tend to forget that it is, until I’m in the car with someone for a nice day out, and I insist on grinding the spin to a halt when I spot a churchyard. After spending so long in semi-isolation over the past year-and-a-bit, I’ve probably forgotten how to conceal my oddness. So odd, that I even have a list of favourite cemeteries. Ranked.  
But I must defend my curious pastime, and challenge some common misconceptions, lest you all think I have such a miserable and joyless a life that visiting the cemetery is the pinnacle of the week.
Firstly, there is no place on earth that will make you feel so alive as a graveyard. Secondly, there are few places so brimming with life. Birds, bees, butterflies, plants, shrubs, grass, briars, fruit, trees, insects and animals, including, in our case, the occasional goat. Where else would you find it, all in one place?
But really, the thing that makes graveyards so compelling is their occupants. Graveyards are not really for the dead - they are about the dead, for the living. It is unfortunate that rarely in life do we pay homage to people like we do in these spaces, those whose names are inscribed on those stones, from the faint, barely visible engravings of centuries ago, to the ornate and freshly-lettered marble monuments. Each plot tells its own tale of a person, as does the year upon the headstone. Busy family plots for those who lived long and well, and tiny, angel-embossed markers for those who never got the chance. A grave blooming with colour, guarded by ornaments, poetry, flags or wind chimes tells a story of a personality; and of the people left behind who mourn their loss. And yet, a neglected, weed-filled patch might not mean no-one cares, it may just mean they care from a distance. There is nothing to say that visiting or maintaining a grave is necessary to grieve, or to remember. And sometimes, it’s easier to stay away.  Here in Ballina, Leigue Cemetery offers a vast space in which to wander, and a walk here is a history lesson in itself. From the ancient, engraved circular cross on a rock that marks the place where St Patrick himself founded his church, from the crumbling crypts and mausoleums with their rusting iron railings, through the decades to the Republican plot – which in itself tells the most fascinating of stories – right through to ‘the new part’, in which many of our loved ones lie; unlikely bedfellows sometimes, resting alongside each other in eternity. Sometimes a wander up the hill at sunrise or sunset to watch the light cast a glow along the stones, brings peace that can be hard found in the busy town beneath. And even though I stop by loved ones, I feel no closer to them than I would while sitting at my desk or driving my car. But it feels respectful. And it is here that the line between life and death feels thinnest.  
It may seem like a strange and unusual pastime, seeking out the company of the dead. But there are lessons, twofold. Firstly a warning, to think of the people we have in our lives. Spend time with them, and build monuments to them while they are alive, lest we find ourselves regretting that we can only visit them here. And a reminder, that outside of these ivy-covered walls, life is out there to be lived, fully, joyfully and unapologetically, while we can.