I’ve often wondered where the bitches and the bastards are buried. Those nasty people who beat their spouses, molest their kids, kill their mates. In all the cemeteries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a gravestone marked with ‘Here lies the b______, may they rot in hell’ or even anything approximating it.
I have seen some that offer just the opening and closing dates of a life with nothing extra, and perhaps this was because those burying the corpse had nothing good to say about it. Perhaps. What’s that old adage? If you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all?
None of this was on my mind as I visited a cemetery in the heart of Geneva. Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, is near the Plainpalais and not all that easy to find (Rue des Rois 10). I had to ask four people before I found someone who could direct me (mind you, that could be a reflection of my pathetic French pronunciation!). But find it I did, eventually. It’s a lovely oasis in the heart of a built-up, lived-in neighbourhood, a walled-in park where people come to sit and chat and have a picnic lunch. This was a little at odds with the Geneva I thought I knew and, not for the first time, I found myself revisiting the opinion I’ve formed of the city.
Home to such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges and John Calvin, former presidents, and a palette of artists of various forms, the cemetery is populated with simple headstones that lack the sculptor-ish wows, of say, Milan or Zagreb. And yet they are quite remarkable in their simplicity and their natural form. I missed out seeing the grave of Sophie Dostoevsky, a woman whose father I have a hard time believing existed. There’s something so intangible about his name.
Many are without accolade, opting for the sparsest of biographical detail – born, died, and spent the time in between painting, or writing, or whoring – or all three. Yes, that one surprised me, too. And I was equally touched to see fresh flowers on Ms Real’s grave and two young men in attendance. Whether they knew her or not, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they, too, were moved by the honesty of the inscription, moved enough to weed and water and pay homage to a woman who knew exactly who she was. Or then again, perhaps she had no say in the inscription and some bitter ex-husband or grieving family took their parting shot. That her last name is Real was not lost on me either.
That’s the wonder of the dead – they can’t contradict the stories I choose to make up in my head. No wonder I find them such good company.
Five years of French were called into play as I tried to decipher what might be described as the anomaly – the one with the full-on testament to a life well lived. I read and re-read the inscription, picking out words that I was relatively certain I understood and then trying to make sense of what went in between. I thought it rather lovely, and for the millionth time wondered what would be said about me when I’m gone. Then again, I’m nearly at the point where I’m opting for cremation and ash scattering, so that might no longer be all that relevant.
Cemeteries are wonderful places in which to take stock of life. To stop for a while and get off the incessant treadmill that is twenty-first-century living. To reflect on what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why you’re bothering. Occasionally, you meet some honesty, some real truth. More often you see memories inscribed on stone, memories that might well be a case of remembering the best and ignoring the worst. And in some cases, as in Geneva, you simply get the facts. The bare facts.