Thursday, November 24, 2005

city of the dead

“I don’t want to be buried in a pet cem-e-ter-y..”

But maybe I want to be buried here. I know it is ecologically unsound to desire to be interred in the earth in a time of over population of the planet. (Though I do wonder how much cremation adds to green house gases.) I have always had a fascination for cemeteries. This may be because, or despite, of only rarely ever visiting someone known to me in them. My inner historian loves the stories the headstones tell.

I have spent a lot of time in the Melbourne General Cemetery over the last 2 decades. Each visit I find something new. I have been known to collect pinecones there in autumn. Regularly. I may have gathered the odd self-seeded calendula, that carpets the middle section with happy orange flowers some years. It never bugs me that “dead people” are there. Though there is something about the northeast corner of the place that deters me from exploring only that area.

Knowing the place so well, I have to admit Melbourne cemetery has seen better days. Sure the glossy marble graves that line the access roads are new and well tended. All those shiny black monoliths only semi filled, waiting for a surviving widow to pop their clogs. But beyond the main pathways the vista is dry and crumbling. Either through pesticide or drought, large tracts sport bare earth or dried weeds. Many of the graves are in disrepair. Some so bad they have literally sunk into the ground. Headstones are faded, broken, lying face down. The long dead appear long forgotten.

There are monuments. A once mayor of Melbourne has a weeping woman, life size in greenish bronze draped over his impressive memorial. His wife is buried there, but no distinction is made over the identity of the distraught woman. His mistress was legendary.

I am always heartened by the Jewish area of the cemetery. I respect the custom of leaving a rock on the grave to show you have visited. I have been known to slip a pebble on a naked grave.

Over on the Uni side is a Chinese Buddhist section. Often the air is still thick with incense. Another tangible human presence in this city of dead souls. There is a multisided pagoda, which can be very handy in the rain.

No talk of the cemetery can be complete without a mention of Elvis. His loyal following in this town created a memorial grotto for him. It is a little whimsy in a largely austere environment. Though now the new crypt edges next to it, the romance of the grotto is somewhat overshadowed.

The only part of the graveyard that never ceases to sadden me is a place I know as ‘the baby stones’. The initial site was a tucked away area where stillborn babies or those surviving only a short time were buried in an unmarked grave. There are now two places in Melbourne cemetery that houses the rocks, covered in small uniform plaques. With scant room for sentiment, the bareness of the words make me ache. I thoroughly recommend a visit in times of maudlin need. You know, when you are feeling sombre and want to be in an appropriate place for your mood. I have never seen anyone else at the stones when I have been there but evidence of frequent visitors, leaving small toys behind, is very poignant.

A number of strange things happened in or around the cemetery when I lived just 2 doors down from it:

A few days after the Hoddle Street Massacre my household heard gunshots coming from the graveyard, late one Sunday night. All 4 of us gathered unprompted in the living room pretending not to freak out. The cops were called and arrived in about 120 seconds. They took it very seriously. No one was found. In the end they concluded someone had jumped the fence and taken pot shots at the possums.

Speaking of wildlife. In the 80’s I saw a number of reptiles enjoying life in the (then) long grass and broken tombs. Definitely a few species of snake and the tail of something that looked suspiciously like a goanna.

People get locked in there. All the time. The gates shut at 5pm and there are only 3 exits in the sprawling grounds. One afternoon walking down Lygon St I encountered 2 elderly Greek women on the wrong side of the fence (in the spooky part of the graveyard). Very distraught. I convinced them to head to the opposite corner where the car entrance is and wait while I called the authorities. Oh the days before mobile phones! I never saw any fresh bones, so I guess they were rescued eventually.

One weekend afternoon another 2 Mediterranean women approached me and asked if I had seen “the man carrying the gun”. If I had, did they really think I would still be in there, not running as fast as I could for the exit?

The new crypt appears to be favoured by dealers of Class A substances. As its right on one of the roads, I guess it acts a bit like a drive through.

It is only ever the living that I am cautious of in the cemetery. If there were only dead people, it would be a lot more relaxing.


Blogger a passing cloud said...

Good post! Visited the cemetery in winter. There was no one around so it was kinda spooky.

11:42 pm  

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