In the postmodern world, one dies alone – away from the eyes of society at large. The emergence of ‘memory cultures’ seems to have marked the end of historically shaped ‘grief cultures’. Burial traditions have taken on new forms that reflect contemporary attitudes, needs and fears. However, in earlier times, dying represented an event that brought together all members of a family and a community. Grief was a socially constructed emotion. Old gravestones in cemeteries all over the world are gateways into the world of the deceased and those who remember them. Through these traces, the deceased feature as a constant and an undeniable part of our very real and visible world. Reading cemeteries makes them visible and reachable.
With this in mind, we can take a walk through the Isola di San Michele in Venice, an old cemetery island, where the graves of the famous poet Joseph Brodsky and the composer Igor Stravinsky are located.
What story can we tell from the grave inscriptions Жарова Вера Алексеевна (Žárová Vera Alekseevna), Christian Nadig, Alessander Paul, Erico Stutz, Enrico Stüssi or Giuseppe Millosewich?
The names enable us to conceive of the geology of ethnically mixed settlements. The inscriptions testify to movements of people and cultural exchanges. Viewed in this way, the cemetery landscape of the Island of San Michele in Venice tells us about the social history of northeastern Italy. On the one hand, it reveals the population’s division into sections, such as between soldiers and sailors, Catholics and Protestants and even priests and nuns. It displays the social order of the community. On the other hand, the tombstones with the inscribed names divulge patterns and waves of migration, point to changing state structures, diplomatic relations and experiences of travel.
The cemetery lays open both strategies of social bordering and implicit mutual acceptance. In a sense, it is a visible mark of a borderless world: although the names of the deceased refer to people with different heritages, their memory is kept alive within the same space and cherished by the same community. Here, not only can we read the past’s different layers, but the lit candles and fresh flowers on the graves of the poets also speak of the present.
Let us now leave Italy and go to Weimar in Germany, the hometown of Classicism, where the memory of Schiller and Goethe, carved in stone, is still being cherished. Lighted candles, flowers and even some written messages left on the graves of the poets Schiller and Goethe are a regular sight.
This material work of memory and honouring is a good place to start when ‘digging’ to enquire into cemetery culture – its forms, roles and changes over time. These practices show how some graves not only become pilgrimage sites, but also reflect how life itself is able to continue endlessly. In this context, it is also worth taking into account the work of official memory by reading military cemeteries. These are sites of worship that present two similar and at the same time contradictory aspects of memorial behaviour and celebration: the collective and the individual.
Both military and private cemeteries (particularly those where famous people are buried) function as specific places where devotion is paid to memories of the past. Cemetery landscapes always have two dimensions: on one level, one needs to consider gravestone design, language, greeting formulas, requests, acknowledgments, promises, prologues and final formulas; on the other, one can study the practices developed around the sites: forms of knowledge(s) and public awareness surrounding them. This is how cemeteries can be read.