On a recent tour in Italy many of my tour guests told me how much they enjoyed visiting cemeteries. I had to agree with them. In countries like Italy, when you walk into one you are at once stunned by the beauty of the memorials and warmed by all the flora that surrounds you. Cemeteries are worth a visit in these countries because they show you how friends and relatives are treated in their after-life. Their fleshly time on earth completed, they are still very much a part of their dear ones' lives today.
I had stood alone earlier that day in a Siena cemetery, surrounded by hundreds of years of history, awestruck by the people who were already there so early in the morning tending their little patches of memories. A woman was tidying up and watering the plants that surrounded her husband's memorial and she smiled at me as we walked past each other. I even got to witness a funeral procession of a Contrada member whose coffin was decked out in the flag of his Contrada, (a district or ward within a city), which through history has born the name "Giraffe". The procession was led by a flag-bearing fellow decked out in costume. The procession halted at the burial site and its members stood watching until the grave was filled with the soil piled up nearby. Members then placed huge amounts of flowers on top of it, to slowly fade away along with their drying tears and dimming memories.
What has happened to us that our cemeteries are so cold, with just one grave stone and a little pot to put flowers in and nothing surrounding these spots except grass?
In Siena as I stood, I was reminded that when we are born, we get flowers and when we die we get flowers but beyond this all is somber and silence. In a place like this, though, there continues to be life: in the multitudinous perennials like roses, jasmine, hibiscus and bougainvillea planted in and around these memorials, perfuming the air with their sweet smells, and pots of succulents and cactus, too; and in the huge cypress trees, straight and tall heading up to the heavens. Together all this creates a beautiful and serene place to wander through and, for those who visit relatives and friends here, a place to stand in quietly and feel comforted. Places like this are a part of their lives, not cold and sterile grounds whose newly arrived occupants, once buried, are soon forgotten.
Silk flowers also play a very important role in cemeteries as they add their own feeling of beauty of place. Often you will see them mixed with live flowers and plants. Personal items found at some graves give you a glimpse into the life of the individual buried there.
You can also tell the Siena cemetery is a busy place by the flower sellers selling live and silk flowers just outside it. Each grave site has a little light in the shape of a rose, a lantern or a lamp that merged with the others casts a soft glow throughout the cemetery when evening comes, creating an ambiance of peace and welcome.
Visiting BUGA, a huge horticulture show in Germany a while ago, I saw an area wholly devoted to cemetery landscaping, which offered ideas on what to plant. The variety of mini gardens displayed and the unique headstones offered were each amazing.
When you visit a cemetery that is full of life with its plants and people, you visit another part of your life. Such a cemetery is at once a continuation of birth and death: a place to meet people and to talk about those who have died, consoling each other; and a place to tend the flowers and find peace and solace.
What makes cemeteries that are prone to looting, overturned grave markers and theft different from a cemetery like this? I don't know, but I do know that some are very impersonal and cold. Cemeteries like this are a joyful place to visit.