Undying Love

From: Four Cemeteries and other Grave Tales by Graham Bathgate

I love cemeteries. It probably goes back to the time when I was a gravedigger in student days. Scottish country cemeteries, at least in Perthshire, were full of old headstones, many dating from the 16th century. In the open air in summer, it was a dream job, cutting the grass, with just the occasional back-breaking dig and thronged burial. As part of sight-seeing on my travels I have always enjoyed visiting cemeteries, creating fond memories of that early work.

One foreign graveyard memorable for its headstones was in the South of France. Pouzolles is a Roman village with a 16th century church and a 17th century chateau. It has 900 people, small enough to guarantee the cemetery would be well tended, pleasing to my practised eye. It is a fine example of the caring that goes into the after-life business in this part of the world. There is a solid wall running round the whole graveyard that covers about half a hectare, containing almost 250 graves, most dating from the mid-19th century.

On one visit to Pouzolles I heard that my friend Arlette had died at the age of eighty-four. Born in the house her father had built on the outskirts of the village, she attended school there until she was 14, when she began looking after her father’s goats, got married and had a family. She lived and died in the house of her birth.

As I climbed the hill to the cypress-ringed cemetery, the spear-like trees created black pools of shade in their depths, a cicada whirred away off my shoulder – we were both startled! Waiting for me was Arlette’s sister to show me the family tomb. Her husband pointed to a section of the huge marble sarcophagus.

< Elle est la > “She is there!” he said emphatically.

I certainly remember Arlette as being small, almost sparrow-like (Edith Piaf came to mind), but how could she be tucked into a tiny bit of tomb which his hand so lovingly touched? Later I looked more carefully and saw that the tomb was in sections neatly jointed with rubber sealant. I imagined a small compartment with an urnful of ashes inside.

Among many ornaments on top there was one that caught my eye, a beautifully crafted plaque of burnished metal on which silver birds flew skywards towards a cut-out circle representing a bright sun, and the words translated thus:

“You have gone into the light and your memory illuminates us.”

The “us” were two daughters and three grand-daughters. Not a bad way to be remembered, not a bad life if your family feels like writing those words on an eye-catching plaque for you. I imagined she had lived a good life of work, family, nature, kindness – a country character with simple values from a bygone time.

I thought about the reasons people visit cemeteries: some to cut the grass and prepare a grave, some to find a famous person’s resting place and appreciate the atmosphere, others simply to remember a friend or loved one with undying love.


On Arlette’s tombstone:

Tu es parti
dans la lumiere
et ton souvenir
nous eclaire …