When I take a peaceful happy step, I take it with all my ancestors. — Thich Nhat Hanh.
We didn’t celebrate Halloween this year at all. It’s not a traditional holiday in Germany and what’s made its way over feels like a cheap commercial import. Instead, in honor of All Saints Day, a christian holiday that is recognized by protestants and catholics in Germany, I decided to take some time to reflect on the passage of life as well as the beauty of my favorite season with a walk through the cemetery near our apartment.
I went at noon when the light was turning the autumn leaves into a great kaleidoscope that reflected against the smooth surfaces of the polished headstones, and, sheepishly, toted along our heavy camera, hoping that the visitors there wouldn’t find it disrespectful to take pictures in such a sacred space.
I tried to steer clear of where family members were bending over to tend to the graves of loved ones. Mostly they didn’t notice me as they were busy tending to their plots, pulling away fallen leaves and filling little flower boxes with spindles of erica and boughs of pine to symbolize eternal life. Still, I felt compelled to search my memory for suggestions on cemetery etiquette and recalled a second-grade field trip where our teacher showed us how to make headstone rubbings with crayons on large pieces of white butcher paper. We came back to the classroom to compare graphics and dates as if we had been on a kind of scavenger hunt.
This made my current excursion seem less bizarre, but, still, I haven’t heard of anyone collecting gravestone-rubbings since then, and I would find it a little weird to come up to the grave of a family member and see a stranger bent over it with a crayon or a camera.
Ultimately I decided that if I was discrete I could justify taking (and sharing) a few pictures. After all, I certainly wasn’t looking for ghost stories. I wasn’t hoping that the camera would pick up the impression of some stray spirit like an uncanny lens-flare visible only once enlarged later on my lap-top monitor. Instead, I was interested in the history that I expected the cemetery would reveal, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Architectural elements that demonstrated intense care followed by, in many cases, profound neglect gave me a tactile sense of the passage of time in the 164 years since the cemetery had been dedicated. Some markers of family plots show not only the signs of the natural world reclaiming the memorializations of loved ones past, but the scars of war and destruction that have come to be a part of Berlin’s cultural identity.
Nonetheless, history’s relentless force is quiet here; its terrors are subdued by the more palpable struggles of individual people to hold on to happy memories of loved ones against the irreversible reality of loss.
In such ambivalent territory, I find it difficult to know how to conclude this small observatory exercise. My historical-analytical training might send me in a different direction, but instead I’d like to preserve the experience as I lived it: as a moment of appreciation for the love, compassion, and work of my ancestors all over the world and throughout history.
I will try to make the most of my inheritance.