I enjoy many guilty pleasures. Hot dogs, for instance. I love them – sliced and heated with baked beans, rolled in a flour tortilla with mild cheddar and microwaved until the cheese oozes out of the ends or stuffed into a wonder-bread bun and slathered with bright yellow American mustard. I love a glass of cool white wine when I cook dinner, even if I’m on my own. I love getting my eyebrows waxed in a beautifying, though slightly sado-masochistic sort of way.
However, one of the things that I get the greatest pleasure from is.....cemeteries. Weird, I know. This is not something new. Ever since I was old enough to be able to drive a car, I have been swerving into gravelly lay-bys to inspect old cemeteries. Of course, in California, this meant any grave pre-1920. When I moved to the east coast of the US, I discovered really old graves. When I moved to rural Northumberland in northern England, I was in churchyard heaven. My children were forever getting irritated with me for stopping suddenly on country roads, knowing without even looking up from their Game Boys that they could either join me for a drizzly game of spot the memento mori or be left in the car. Anna made the mistake of once refusing to come with me and Alex and it was only around twenty minutes later we heard her, hysterical with fear, alone on the other side of the church looking for us.
I am not alone in this obsession. Just ask my www.findagrave.com cyber-companions. This is where it all gets a little strange (or rather, stranger). If you’re a keen family historian and you know where your ancestor is buried, you can go to this site and ask for a volunteer to go hunt for their headstone, photograph it and post the photo. Having fulfilled several of these photo requests at the cemetery that abuts my late sister’s house in Holyoke, Massachusetts, I was delighted to see that there was a pending photo request at Suva Cemetery that I could spend my free time hunting for.
Suva cemetery sprawls over a hillside as you approach the city from the west. Ironically, there is a government-sponsored billboard on the roadside opposite the cemetery that proclaims something like “Welcome to Suva – Fiji’s healthy city!” After walking Anna to the bus stop on her first day of school (at 7am) I caught a taxi to the cemetery. Armed with a large umbrella to keep out of the sun, a bottle of water and a camera, I intrepidly dodged commuter traffic across Suva’s main road to the unimpressive gates. Almost immediately it was apparent that not only were my flip flops completely inappropriate (despite being order from an orthopaedically correct old lady catalogue), but that I should have also brought a emergency beacon in case I fell into one of the large holes that pock-marked the grounds.
|There are a lot of young sailors buried here.|
The other thing that was obvious was that there was absolutely no way that I was going to locate poor Mr Mantell’s grave that morning. The cemetery was bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside, with irregular boundaries and meandering lines of headstones that were impossible to follow in a systematic fashion. And being an easily distracted sort, I kept forgetting about the holes.
|Some estimates state that up to 14% of the Fijian population died in the 1918/19 influenza pandemic|
I never feel scared in cemeteries, but I do feel that the air is thick with stories, even if I am making most of them up myself from the scant information on the headstones. In the older parts of the cemetery I felt deeply moved as I read some of the inscriptions. Young seaman, missionaries, small children, many buried singly, not in family plots which resonated the displacement chord that is forever humming in my heart here in Fiji.
By 8:50am Mr Mantell was still eluding me and I was starting to think that I might collapse from heat stroke, so I sat in one of the open shaded bures, looked out at the harbour and let the breeze cool me down contemplating a rather long verse on a grave on one of the last graves I’d walked past:
Master, I've filled my contract, wrought in Thy many lands;
Not by my sins wilt Thou judge me, but by the work of my hands.
Master, I've done Thy bidding, and the light is low in the west,
And the long, long shift is over... Master, I've earned it.....Rest.
This was on a grave of a 24 year old who died in 1921 (Late Lieut. Royal Field Artillery). One can only imagine the toil that he’d endured to have his parents feel like his shift was over so early.*
How privileged I am to be the grand old age of 48 and still be fit and greedy for everything that I love and find interesting! Even if those things include processed meat products, depilation and hanging out with dead people. And blogging, let’s not forget blogging.
*An interesting post-script to this blog is that the verse is from a poem by Robert Service called The Song of the Wage-Slave. Also, the young man is Alan Ross Wilkins, an Australian, whose war diary was published for private circulation in 1922. Well, I know what I’ll be doing on my next trip to Australia – going to the National Library to have a look at it. That’s probably not normal, I know. But afterwards I’ll go to the pub and have a hot dog and a large glass of chardonnay.