Saturday, October 02, 2010


"I kiss her photo, light the candle , prepare the incense... and let it burn .I tend to the flowers. The familiarity of ritual frames me, in my shadow of sorrow." Dina Dounis, "Visiting my mother."

When I was little, the world was young and no one died. I was destined to live with all the people I knew around me forever, in a cozy cocoon of inevitability. In that world, the past and present had melded into one and life offered the possibility of endless summers seated under orange trees, watching nonchalantly as titan progenitors worked in their own gardens of Eden, as they had done, since the dawn of Time.
I had no conception of a graveyard until my grandfather died. We buried him in a hole in the ground in an area of the cemetery, that fittingly, was new, the rows of tombstones, grey, forbidding and final, positioned respectfully some distance away. I remember at the funeral, looking at the layers of clay at the sides of the pit converging into a brooding darkness and being seized with an indefinable terror, as the coffin sank lower and lower into it. Oil and wine was poured over it and then, we all took turns covering it with soil. When we went back a few days later, it was to a mound of crumbled, eroding clay, dumped unceremoniously around a flimsy wooden cross. My grandfather was no more.
My grandfather's grave faces East, something that was of immense consolation to my grandmother, who fretted that in Australia, people had no knowledge of the fact that they should lay their loved ones towards the East, in order that they should arise at the time of the General Resurrection. In those days, before graves were lined with concrete foundations, one had to wait some months before erecting a tombstone. My father constructed a wooden border to delineate his father's grave, and a wooden box, in the shape of a church, in which to house a καντήλι and a θυμιατό. Prior to that moment, I had only ever seen such items in front of an iconostasis and I would wake up to the smell of incense and the sound of my grandmother murmuring prayers as she censed every room. When I asked her what she was saying she would smile and reply mysteriously: "These aren't things for children to know." Now I had to know, because I was charged with the task of censing my grandfather's grave and in the knowledge of it, and the fact that eventually, I would lose all my beloved progenitors, I lost my childhood forever.
When we finally had the tombstone erected, it was bi-fold. On one side was my grandfather's photograph, his name, spelt incorrectly in Greek and his date of birth and death and on the other side, a blank, black piece of marble, brooding and terrifying in its nullity. "That's where my photograph will be," my grandmother would say as she would view it, having first, washed down the marble, polished it to a brilliant sheen, arranged and re-arranged the flowers from her garden with meticulous detail, crossed herself and kissed her husband's picture. "You will come here and remember me and tell me what you are doing. And make sure you don't leave anything out. I will know already."
My sister and I do remember. We wash and polish our grandparents' grave in the same manner that my grandmother did and we bring them flowers from our garden, because to place bought flowers on the grave of those who worked in Eden would constitute an inversion of the natural world. Having lit the votive lamp, censed, crossed ourselves, kissed their pictures and mumbled messages to them under our breaths, we make our way past the Southern Slav families, laying out feasts for their dead and through the maze of graves that have sprung up since their demise. Familiar names and faces, seen over years, meet our gaze from the expressionless tombstones. On one side, the face of a teenager, killed in a road accident, smiling, oblivious of the cruel abrogation of his right to potential and chance and flanking our path out of the cemetery, the numerous graves of relatives and friends who have in the years since, become citizens of the necropolis - their tombstones both denoting but also muting the vibrancy of their lives and hushing up their legacies. We watch with amusement as older ladies scurry from one grave to another, their experienced eyes assessing the magnitude of expense lavished in construction, the level of unkemptness, drawing conclusions as to the frequency of familial visits and archiving this information for the use in gossip sessions later on. We watch also with understanding, as these ladies have been born and brought up among the ruins and graveyard of an entire civilization and their natural, matter of fact acceptance of the process of death and its accoutrements, one which derives from the Orthodox tradition, in which death is merely a part of life and a window into another world, is thus unsurprising. There is none of the Western or even ancient Greek abhorrence of death, or shunning of its realms and territories within their psyche.
During my university years, I would occasionally walk across the street to Carlton cemetery and search among the old graves, for those of the founding fathers of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. Having found them, I would marvel at their age and their remoteness from the present. If those stones could speak, it is doubtless that we would have much to learn and yet there they remain, old and mouldering, denoting a long gone presence to descendants who no longer exist and to their descendants, who have no idea of their significance.
While walking through the cemetery, viewing the eroded state of other nineteenth century tombstones, some of them architectural masterpieces of a bygone ages, when people troubled over tombstones and did not merely mass-produce them in blocks of angular marble, and which have had corners snap off, or which have almost completely sunk into the ground, one is struck with the realization, that in times to come, the crumbling inscriptions on no-longer tended graves will be the final testimony to the presence of a Greek-speaking community here. It is for this reason that the Nazis were obsessed with desecrating and destroying Jewish cemeteries and the anguish of the Jewish people, who saw their ancestors' tombstones used as building materials, throughout Europe - even in Thessaloniki can therefore be understood in this context. Our ultimate future then, is a litany of incomprehensible hieroglyphics to a people who will not even know how to read our names. Community leaders will do well to take note of that.
A while ago, a member of the community suggested that it would be of value to begin the process of photographing Greek-Australian graves and compiling a catalogue of them. Not only would this preserve the memory of persons, it would provide a valuable historical record as to our changing burial customs and attitudes towards tradition. It would, also provide an eschatological dimension to our own sense of identity and possibly cause us to view ourselves and our community differently. As a corollary, it may be time to consider the planning of a trust, charged with the task of identifying and preserving, Greek graves of historical significance, lest they be effaced from memory and our consciousness forever.
Every time my heart is heavy, or I am about to embark on a new course in my life, I am drawn to my grandparents' grave. As I light the censer and watch as the scented fumes rise high into the sky, in the directly opposite location of their corporeal manifestation, I know that nothing is gone when it can be remembered and I know who I am, as my name is there, on my grandfather's tombstone, written, in stone.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 October 2010