Cemeteries and Culture

Headstone, Tananger, Sola commune, Rogaland country, Norway
Publius Terentius Afer was a Roman playwright in the 2nd century BC. He wrote: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" ("I am human, and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me").
I use his rationale to explain – according to some possibly to defend – my interest in cemeteries. I have always, wherever I travel, visited the local cemeteries, in countries where cemeteries are found, that is. They are peaceful oases, even if located in the middle of a large city. More importantly, they are reflections and commentaries on the society and culture in which they are located, in the past as well as the present. The appearance and role of cemeteries accordingly vary enormously.
Before I continue, in order to put my readers at ease, I should explain that my interest in cemeteries is not driven by a hidden death wish. It is but one further example of my general interest in and curiosity about cultures and their variability.
In the northeast of USA I have seen headstones where the surviving wife/husband adds her/his name and date of birth, leaving space for the date of death. In London, on an old, overgrown, and rather chaotic cemetery, I came across the impressive monument to William Booth. In Belgrade, on All Saints' Day, I went with Roma (gypsy) friends to a cemetery to celebrate a deceased, with all of us sitting around the grave and consuming large quantities of food and liquor, and becoming very merry and happy indeed. In Paris I have been to the grave of Jim Morrison, of Door's fame, full of graffiti. In Norway I visit, admittedly infrequently, two cemeteries where some of my ancestors were laid to rest.
Eating, drinking alcohol, and use of graffiti are unthinkable in cemetaries in Norway. It would be considered akin to blasphemy. One would be heavily fined, and in some cases likely end up in prison. And, while it is true that cemeteries reflect society, I wonder if also the opposite is true, that cemeteries affect people in a different way. Death and burial in Norway is a serious matter indeed, while in other cultures these cases of rites de passage are treated often very differently. Old headstones would be filled with a lot of text and symbols, while modern headstones often are simple and functional, including only the minimal necessary information (see the photo). Cemeteries in Norway have always been austere, simple, and functional, almost to the point of being boring, compared with cemeteries in, for example, countries where catholicism is dominant, a reflection of the reformation and the impact of Protestantism. The graves are lined up, with the same distance between them, and the headstones are simple, with a predetermined breadth and with, and with very little room for embellishment. As a result, walking through a cemetery in Norway affects you in a very different way than, say, in India.
While cemeteries of course are a very foreign cultural phenomenon and form of expression on the South Asia sub-continent, there are some Western-inspired cemeteries, a result of the sub-continent having been a colony of for example England. My favourite one is the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata (Calcutta) (Abandoned Spaces n.d.). It was made for the Christian community in Kolkata and more generally Bengal, most of whom were British subjects. It is an amazing experience to walk there – the architecture, a blend of various cultural influences, age-old trees overgrown with ferns, and the overall feel of it. It somehow comes across more like a park than a cemetery. When I was there, in the mid-80s, I had recently read William M. Thackeray's "Vanity Fair", and found the graves of members of his immediate family (he was born in Kolkata). A number of well-known and important British colonial administrators were interred here. This is a treasure chest of colonial and cultural history. I will certainly go back there next time I am in Kolkata!
Lars T Soeftestad
(1) Adapted from a post on my Facebook timeline on 6 August 2017,v
(2) Photo credit: Lars Soeftestad, Supras Ltd. The headstone on the grave of my mother's parents at the cemetery in Tananger, Sola commune, Rogaland county, Norway.
(3) Relevant Devblog articles: "Tananger - Back to the Roots" at: https://devblog.no/en/article/tananger-back-roots
(4) Permalink. URL: https://devblog.no/en/article/cemeteries-and-culture
(5) This article was published 8 August 2017. It was revised 2 Deember 2022.
Abandoned Spaces. n.d. "The abandoned South Park Street cemetery that no longer welcomes the dead." URL: http://www.abandonedspaces.com/uncategorized/abandoned-south-park-street-cemetery-no-longer-welcomes-dead.html