My first memory of cemeteries were incessant visits to my grandad’s grave at Belgrade’s New Cemetery what I was a little boy.
My grandad passed away at the age of 65 in the middle of the greatest economic crisis in Serbia in 1993 and, even though I was five, I remember my grandma trying to honour his memory by making sure we properly arranged a funeral and his 40 day commemoration. My memories of that time a blur, but I remember the feel of the cemetery: its calming shade, its derelict tombs sending my mind to wonder and my grandma’s sense of ease there. We all knew we are going to end up there, eventually, so in every visit she made the effort to make us all feel at home, mostly by “talking” to our ancestors.
When my grandma passed away in 2004, my Mum continued the tradition of chatting with her ancestors at our family grave, of course, half tongue-in-cheek, half longingly, knowing how much we missed them in our lives: their kind words, their mannerisms, even the ways they annoyed us. Then, all of a sudden, I became aware that I am also one of those who will end up at plot 58-124 and I started taking our familial resting place all the more seriously.
Although it is a far cry from all the fancy tombs with chapels and statues, it was somewhere I am expected to spend an eternity at so I decided at one point to familiarise myself with the neighbourhood. While initially I was drawn to the major tombs at the New Cemetery, the more I visited, especially in the last few weeks after my Mum passed away, I started noticing the smaller tombs, many of them telling stories of non-historically important grief, but grief nonetheless. I stopped to read sad couplets written for lost children and parents, I almost teared up at the earnestness of photos and sculptures which were made to capture the spirit of the gone loved ones. The architecture of various tombs, although appealing, stopped being key: it was the intensity of the emotion and thought that was poured into the tombs that drew me in, as I was mourning. Each of them valiantly vied for attention of their inhabitants not being forgotten, some with wonderful art, some with pathos and some with pizzaz, almost knowing that many people die in this city every day, but that few end up being remembered for generations.