Grave site Visits

Panorama of the white headstones in he Cabaret Rouge cemetery in France.
Panorama of Cabaret Rouge Cemetery

Today marks the last day of the triduum of Allhallowtide. All Souls to the RC kids, and Dias de los Muertos to many others. The Day of the Dead celebrations include visits to the cemetery and altars at home to honour ancestors and absent friends.

For all the years I’ve spent wandering the pathways at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery – my mother’s parents on the main entry road, my father’s parents several turns further, and several rows in, now with my Uncle Charlie, their eldest son, by their side. My Uncle Jack and Auntie Dot on the far side of the mausoleum, right next to the road. Earlier this fall, for the first time, I went into the mausoleum, for my cousin’s mother’s in-urnment. I’m quite comfortable in cemeteries. I go so far as to seek them out when I need some help finding the quiet in my life.

My dad goes and takes care of the graves in Holy Sepulcher – weeds, mows, waters, lays the wreath that stays there all winter, collects it again in the spring… My visits are more random and less obligatory. Not that my dad visits begrudgingly – I’m certain that he takes those duties very seriously, as a labour of love, as I will when those tasks eventually fall to me.

Last year was the centenary of the end of WW1, and the Dominion command of the Royal Canadian Legion put out a challenge – they wanted people to research the war casualties that have been repatriated to local cemeteries, and place Canadian flags at their gravesites. A friend and I went to a relatively small cemetery in Ayr, Ontario, and searched for 4 Canadian soldiers buried therein. With each site we found, I watched my friend (an older man, a veteran himself, with a brain injury) put down the canes he uses to help steady himself, straighten up, and salute. In whispered tones, he said to each, “Thank you for your service” before we stuck a small paper flag near the base of each gravestone. It was a lovely crisp afternoon, and I’ve thought about what day gave both of us. We had visited the graves of 4 people who had been dead longer than either of us had been alive. They had lived less than either of us. They were strangers, and yet, we wandered the cemetery to honour their sacrifice. The gifts of this experience are many-fold. The Royal Canadian Legion is not doing a Bells of Peace campaign this year, and yet, they gave my friend and I the gift of a new tradition. I give my friend the gift of a list of a handful of war casualties whom he can bestow the gratitude for their service and the paper flag. My friend gives me the gift of allowing me to observe him honouring his brethren.

Not that this is a huge stretch. I have always found cemeteries particularly peaceful, and I do enjoy walking along their winding paths. There is so much grief focused in those places, so many tears fallen to the manicured lawns, but I always find peace there. A few years ago, over the course of a week, I did a WWI European battlefields tour visited several cemeteries – Oxford Road, Essex Farm, Langemarck German cemetery, Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in all of France, Cabaret Rouge, and Ligny St. Flochel.  These cemeteries, with massed graves of unfathomable numbers of unidentified soldiers, interned only by the inclusion of their skulls, was heartbreaking. A few months before that trip, as Child was researching for a school project, we decided to visit the Canadian Military Cemetery at the Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa. Even the waves of rows of white headstones didn’t prepare me.

Child, signing the visitor’s book at Essex Farm

At the first cemetery we visited in Belgium, Essex Farm, Child signed the visitor’s book. From the direction I was watching him, I could see him, and in the background were graves of soldiers who were his and his friends’ ages when they died. Of all the places I visited and things I saw, I will never forget the poignancy of that moment. At the rest of the cemeteries we visited, Child looked for a grave marked with our surname. He wanted to honour someone from his own clan. He knew that the people buried there were, somehow his brethren. By sharing a last name, or a citizenship, or a regimental crest on his (then) cadet uniform. I was proud to watch him grapple with what it all meant, 100 years later.

While there was some peace there compared to the horrors of what came before, it truly was a kick to the feels at every turn. That year, “the crosses, row on row” started to mean something a little different to me. I had no family member lost to the war – my uncles who were part of the Canadian Forces came back. Still, there is a depth of loss in those places that wrestled in my chest with the peace I usually find. Even on a visit to Holy Sepulcher cemetery in Burlington in the months after I returned from our trip, I happened upon their Field of Honour, which in the decades of time that I’ve wandered in that cemetery, I had somehow never previously found. While I miss my Uncle Jack, and my grandfather, and others buried there, there is a different feeling of loss that rests over the rows of white military graves.

As Remembrance day approaches again, I asked my friend if he would like to do the grave site visits again. In a different cemetery, close to his new home.  And now, on All Souls Day, my friend and I return to a cemetery to honour strangers lost to war, and perhaps, time. We will remember them.

Last year, we went armed with names and approximate grave locations in the Ayr cemetery. This year, I tried a bit harder to find out something of these people’s lives. Some died more than a century ago, maybe no one visits them anymore – Some of the names I pulled had nothing more than the casualty name and the fact that an Imperial War Graves Commission headstone was erected for them. So, it falls to us – my friend an I, and all of us – to remember a little more, if we can.

This year on Dias de los Muertos, may we celebrate the lives of our veterans and ancestors, not just mourn their deaths. And may we all expand what the remembrance season means to each of us.

Extra Credit:

Find gravesites to visit with your family:

Commonwealth Graves Commission (find casualties in cemeteries near you)

Canadian Virtual War Memorial (find – and contribute to – the file for a war casualty. Many of the listed casualties have a picture of their tombstone, which makes it easier to find. Some also have newspaper clippings, portraits or pictures of other memorials where the casualty appears, such as church, university, or company memorial walls, or in regional memorial publications)

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