I live just across the road from death. For the past 18 months – day or night – I have gazed across at the view from our house, where apart from a few palm trees and a scattering of houses, the Cypriot Greek Orthodox cemetery is the main feature. Last night when I looked over in that direction, before letting myself in through the front door, there were pinpricks of light speckled across the patch of land where the cemetery lies. The dozens of tiny candles or lanterns positioned on graves made an ethereal sight. I have seen this before, but with a pale white full moon, peeping out from behind the clouds, it was even more eerie and a little mysterious. I’ve been wondering about how the candles spring to light as soon as darkness falls or perhaps they are always lit and only visible in the darkness?
This question on my mind, I resolved to go and investigate, sensitively – but not at night. I decided to wander across and take a look when the sky was blue and the sun is shining, which in theory should make it much more commonplace.
So the other day I overcame my reservations and took an afternoon stroll to the cemetery. Beyond the white washed walls, black and white marble and dozens of flowers of every colour adorned the graves. Unlike an English graveyard, it seemed to be a place of regular activity. Newly placed flowers, mainly silk, lay on each grave and massively ornate headstones, many with roofs overhead, like mini shrines formed a place of tribute for loved ones. Photographs were in abundance too. As a foreign stranger it was interesting to see the faces of the dead, some young, some old, some with wives and some with children buried alongside them. There were recent dates and some that dated back from the island’s troubled past in the 60s and 70s. There were young soldiers too, pictured in uniforms with proud inscriptions.
The mystery of the lights soon became clear as I looked more carefully at the dozens of little oil lamps placed on each grave and in between them, I could see many were alight, with flickering yellow flames only just visible in the sunshine. There was a strong smell of paraffin and wax, a bit like the inside of the chapels and churches we’ve visited on the island. It seemed amazing that all these graves had people who came to tend them regularly, replacing flowers, planting flowers and bushes and replenishing the oils. Far from being a place that is rarely visited, the cemetery is quite often a hive of activity with dozens of cars lining the road and along the banks, as families and friends gather. And this isn’t just for funerals, there are also many memorial days for those who have died when special celebrations of their lives are held on six month and annual anniversaries. It’s clear the dead are very much alive in the hearts of Cypriots and they aren’t afraid to remember them.
Death visits us all in different ways. For me, it was almost 33 years ago this month that it visited our home when my mother died suddenly, while I was at university. Walking around the cemetery last week, I thought about her own grave, now also shared by my father. It is a village graveyard with a view across a rolling field where we used to go sledging as children. I like its simplicity and its rural outlook. But I also like the idea of the lanterns on the graves here and that someone goes there regularly to keep the oil topped up so the dead are never forgotten. For me, the idea of lights burning despite the darkness of a graveyard signals our hope of a life to come.
It’s a long time since I’ve visited the graveyard in Kent – but perhaps it’s time to go back and light a lantern there?