In Olšany Cemetery

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By Anna Evans:

On a weekend trip to Prague they decide to walk in the cemetery near where they are staying in Prague 3. They agree to set out early, visit the cemetery, and then to continue with their day. It is October, an early morning chill in the air, but already the sunlight is beginning to glance down with a nod, promising warmth, an unexpected dawning of late summer spells.

She reads aloud from her book, ‘See, the first line mentions the cemetery…  listen, it says…’ She hasn’t made it very far with the book yet, but is glad to be reading a Czech author. There is something about this place, she thinks. I would like to get to know this city and its complex history; this city of writers and of walking.

Leaving their apartment building, they can see the wall of the cemetery in front of them and trees behind. Crossing the road they find an entrance at the end of the street.

It is one of those rare times when both agree that this is the only place they really want to be, that given the chance they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They listen carefully to the other’s remarks and laugh together as two people who know and understand each other. They agree that it’s good to be away from home, that the best feeling of all is the day stretching out in front of them, the city to explore. The feeling of waking early in a new place, that sense of accomplishment. The promise of black coffee and the warming smell of baking bread. There is a route planned on a map, the streets of Prague, its art nouveau buildings a perfect tapestry through which to wander, to the sound of passing trams.

The trees are filters for the sunlight, and leaves are beginning to cover everything. Wandering along the paths, the gravestones draped in ivy but without the sense of neglect and desperate wildness some cemeteries have.

Those strange eruptions from the ground growing amongst the trees, marble and stone of different shapes and sizes with pathways running between. They are like city streets, laid out in blocks with signs, and all the leaves swept away. Sometimes the graves look like grand city houses. ‘How funny that money and status should continue to follow us into death,’ he says, and they pause, thinking of the years sliding past them.

Walking and reading the stones, thinking about what draws people to cemeteries, trying to describe the sense of peace and watchfulness it brings. There are those tending the graves of family, holding in their hands the span of remembrance; like the flowers they lay down, for as long as their transient bodies remain. The green force flowing through the stems cut off already from their source of life.

Looking at the names on the gravestones, reading the history of families, through the years engraved in stone. Of lost children, and married couples who died within months of one another.

Cemeteries are really places for the living.

Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.

Confronting their mortality, but feeling life urging its way through their bodies, they walk around, knowing they will leave and continue the day, saying farewell to those in ivy-covered slumber.

Reaching the main entrance, the sun warmer and brighter, rising higher in the morning sky.  The sound of traffic from the road nearby and people walking past. Soon they will join the movement of the city streets and the day will glide by in all its colours.

For a moment though, they pause and look back. They both know how quickly and how easily the shadow beckons and can fall between them. Like feeling cold on a sunny day, like voices interrupting from the past, ghosts of time and distance.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction. 

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Mystical Mount Koya

IMAGE: Pete Martin

IMAGE: Pete Martin

By Pete Martin

Koya-san, which is 857 metres above sea level, is the base for the Shingon Buddhists, an esoteric sect of Buddhists. There are over one hundred and twenty temples on the mountain and there’s been a religious community here since 816. A monk named Kukai, who had studied Buddhism in China, founded the Shingon sect on his return to Japan. Legend has it that he threw his vajra (ritual sceptre) from China and it landed here in the mountains in Wakayama. The Imperial Court subsequently granted that Kukai was to build a place of meditation on the mountain. After his death, Kukai became known as Kobo Daishi. The monks to this day still believe Kobo Daishi to be alive, meditating in his tomb for the arrival of Miroku (the Buddha of the future) and they prepare three meals a day for him in Okunoin cemetery.  

I get off the bus at Okuninguchi for the Okunoin Cemetery. The cemetery is a sacred area and the pathway runs for two kilometres from here to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum. The path is lined with old, tall cedar trees and the cemetery contains over two hundred thousand gravestones and memorial pagodas. The trees are huge and close together blocking the sunlight. The graves are also packed together tightly, the dark grey stone, wood and black-grey marble give an eerie atmosphere. The ground is covered with snow and the base of the trees and the headstones are covered in moss. It’s not a place for anyone who is claustrophobic. The air is fresh, but the whole place is damp and slightly misty, adding to the enchantment. 

There are various signs in English and Japanese describing the legends that abound in the cemetery. This just adds to the ambiance. At the Sugatami-no-Ido (reflection well), legend has it that if a person looks into the well and does not see his reflection then he will die within three years. At the Ksitigsrbha Shrine, the bodhisattva Jizo is the Asekaki Jizo (sweating Jizo). The Buddha is made of black stone and is often moist due to the weather conditions. It is said that the statue is sweating because it bears the sufferings of others for their wrongdoings. At the Zenni Jochi memorial, a visitor can place his ear on the stone and hear the cries in hell. Near the end of the pathway, at the Mizumuke Jizo, the faithful pour water on the statues of the Buddhist deities for the peacefulness of their loved ones. Close to this is the Miroku-ishi, which is a stone that it is said to feel light to virtuous people and heavy to sinful people. I can't tell whether this is true or not, as it’s too heavy for me to lift. 

Along the path there are many gorinto (five-tiered stupas). The five tiers represent the five elements, from bottom to top, of earth, water, fire, wind and space, and these elements form the Buddha Mahavairocana, the fundamental deity of Shingo Buddhism, or the life force that is the origin of everything and that illuminates all. The goal of Shingon is the realization that each one of us is identical to Mahavairocana in nature, a goal achieved through initiation, meditation and esoteric ritual practices. 

Many of the statues have bibs, which provide the only colour in the cemetery. The bibs are placed on the statues by those who have lost children, in prayer to Ojizo-Sama, who is the guardian of children. It is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River, as the children have not been able to undertake enough good deeds. Ojizo-Sama saves these souls from the eternal penance of piling stones on the river bank by hiding the children’s souls in his robes and this is symbolized by the bibs on the statues. 

At the end of the long pathway through the cemetery, there are three wooden temples in front of the stone bridge that leads to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. A group of four monks, again in orange robes and geta, walk noisily from temple to temple, stopping to pray and chant at each one. The stone bridge depicts the entrance to the precinct of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The bridge was originally wooden but it’s now rebuilt in stone. It has thirty six stone planks that, with the bridge itself, mark the thirty seven Buddhist deities of the diamond world mandala, which is the representation of the unchanging cosmic principle of the Buddha. 

To the right of the mausoleum, up the steps from the bridge, is the Torodo, the lantern hall. This is a plain wooden building, a modern reconstruction of the prayer chapel of 1023, erected by the disciple Shinzen. In 1016, a poor woman sold her hair to buy a lantern to pray for the rest of her deceased parents. The Emperors, Shirakawa and Showa, donated lanterns also, in 1033 and 1948 respectively. These three lanterns are kept burning continuously in the hall. 

Inside the mausoleum itself, monks sit at stalls at the front copying sutras carefully. The wooden building is dark and atmospheric. Lanterns and pendants hang from the low ceiling. Two monks flank another who sits in the middle of the temple chanting. Incense burns and the only colour is from the orange robes of the monks. I feel I’m encroaching on a sacred service, but another monk waves me forward for a closer view. It feels very spiritual with the chanting and the incense. It even smells other-worldly. I’m apprehensive about intruding further. On my way out, to my embarrassment, I noisily slip on the wet entrance floor. Nobody notices. Outside I catch my breath. The tomb is usually closed. I was only inside for a matter of perhaps five minutes but it felt like time stood still inside. The gobyo (tomb) has an aura that I have felt only in a few other places.

Pete Martin’s book Revolutions: Wandering and wondering on a sabbatical year is a compelling tale of travel and change and is out now. More information can be found at www.wander2wonder.com.