The Gift of the Graveyard

by Zoe White

Cemetary Gates, photo by Zoe White
photo by Zoe White

Somewhere in the south of France, the village graveyard is still. Sunlight blazes, ricocheting off the white marble slabs. Cicada song swells and pulses, shredding the parched air. Mine are the only footsteps; all other sensible life forms are sleeping in shadows. Sweat trickles from my forehead into my eyes. Stupid, I think, to have come out without a sunhat.

Two birds fly close, making a strange clicking sound. Is this their normal call or an alarm call? Are they accompanying me or leading me? Perhaps they have a nest with young nearby and are trying to distract me.

Lulled by the heat, I let the birds lead, and enjoy following, not having to frame a thought, letting the mood of the moment permeate. The birds eventually fly away, but they have led me in. Now there is only effortless following and quiet attention; now there is only deep contentment, self-forgetting, and a sense that something is offered here, something unfolding, like fragrance.

Can I immerse myself? Can I let myself be immersed? Let’s see. There’s no construction; no plan. Let the suggestion play. Yes. . . . I’ll come back to this place tomorrow with my camera.

***** 

The first thing I notice when I enter the cemetery gates at 8 o’clock this morning is a small white dog sitting on the path ahead, his fur edge-lit by the sun. We seem to be alone, yet his lead is tied to a railing, so there must be an owner somewhere. While I’m watching the dog, enjoying the gentle light and the freshness of the day, I hear a voice, and then a woman carrying a watering can suddenly emerges from behind one of the tombs.

She looks to be in her 70s; she’s wearing a bright orange crochet top with beige trousers. Thin strands of unwashed hair trail around her shoulders. When she speaks, it’s evident that she’s missing several teeth. Her words are unclear and her phrases haphazard. She makes random connections and my French isn’t up to following her unexpected side-turnings and sudden switches, but I feel she’s part of the invitation of this place and I really want to understand her.

Trying to make simple conversation, I indicate the dog waiting patiently in the shade. Yes, he is hers. “Do you come here every day?” I ask.

She eyes me suspiciously. “Why do you ask me that?”

I was just trying to be friendly. I didn’t mean to scare her. I scrape together a few more French words and try again. “Are you the caretaker here?”

No, apparently she just comes to water the flowers for some families. “May I take your picture?” It’s the first time I’ve dared ask this of a stranger. At first she hesitates and says she’s not looking so good, but I reassure her and, after a little encouragement, she agrees and leads me to the tomb she wants to stand beside for the photo.

After the photo, she goes to pick up her watering can. “Come,” she says, suddenly heading off toward another grave, talking all the while. We arrive. “Here! This is the place where my friend is buried. We loved each other.”

After finishing her watering, she tells me she’s leaving now. She goes to collect her dog then comes and kisses me on both cheeks. I suppose I didn’t frighten her then. I’m very relieved.

*****

Photo by Zoe White
Photo by Zoe White

At first there’s no sign of the flower waterer this morning, so I start by photographing some fern leaves and a basking lizard. Then I catch sight of her arriving through the gates. Today she’s wearing a broad-rimmed white sunhat and a smart black and white cotton dress. She tells me she’s going to meet two of her friends at the village café after watering. It’s her turn to pay for the coffees.

“Come,” she says suddenly. “I found a dead body. Come. I’ll show you.”

Off she goes again, leaving me to follow cautiously in her wake wondering if I really want to see, if I really want to go where she’s leading.

Suddenly she stops and points to a photograph on one of the tombs. “Look!” The face is that of a young man, hardly more than a boy. “I found him last year,” she says. “Two o’clock one morning, walking my dog, lying beside his motorcycle. I don’t know, perhaps he’d been drinking.”

We stand staring at the photograph without speaking, but I sense the shock of her discovery still reverberating around us. It’s shared now, of course. The impact, taken out of time (his, hers, mine), ripples through us, and we watch by the graveside until the waters are calm again.

She has to go now; she doesn’t want to keep her friends waiting. Where was I staying? Did I come to this part of France often?

“No, not often. I’m on holiday. Can I take another photo of you?”

She agrees without hesitation this time, straightens her hat, and smiles.

After she leaves, a police car arrives. Three agents fan out and begin searching the graveyard. I did a pretty extensive tour of the whole cemetery yesterday and saw nothing out of the ordinary. It gets me thinking, though. I suppose a cemetery would be a good place to hide something if you wanted to. A body, for example. I’ve always felt comfortable, almost at home, in graveyards. The possibility that I might stumble across something sinister, something actually dead, had never before occurred to me.

After a quick search, the police, apparently satisfied, get into their car and drive off.

*****

Photo by Zoe White

I’m at the cemetery by 7 this morning. The air is filled with birdsong, the breeze already warm. After walking around with my camera for about an hour studying the deep grooves of the cypress tree bark and the algae, moss, and lichens on the headstones, I come across a tomb I hadn’t noticed before. I move closer to get a better look because, at first, I can hardly believe what I see. It appears to be a photo of a young woman holding a camera. I’ve never seen an image like this on any gravestone before. She’s sitting in her studio; the camera, on a tripod in front of her, is pointing toward me. She’s smiling out at me and, for a second, I’m unsure who is the seer and who the seen. For a moment, the eye of the camera bridges us, and life flows over – overflows. It’s as if I’m seeing another version of myself looking back at me, engaging. There’s no time or space here, but the bridge is alive.

Then I hear scratching. I first take it to be a bird in one of the cypress branches, but then I see two red squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of a nearby tree. I wait and watch; soon all is quiet again. They have moved on up the tree. I move closer, hoping they will come back.

After about five minutes, one of the squirrels appears again. We look at each other, and as I raise my camera, he runs around to the other side of the tree and peers out at me from behind the trunk. I have him in focus now; he poses for a couple of seconds to let me get a few shots of his good side and then darts off again.

While I’m standing reviewing the images I’ve just taken, a cypress cone hits the ground near my feet. Did it fall, or was it thrown? I look up into the branches and see nothing, but sense I am being watched. I turn back to the camera again then hear more scratching, and another cone falls. Incredibly, they seem to be signalling to me; they seem to want to play!

Photo by Zoe White
photo by Zoe White

While I adjust the settings on the camera and get ready for some more action, one of the squirrels comes all the way down the tree and leaps onto a nearby grave. Then the second squirrel comes running straight toward me. By this time my heart is pounding. I’m desperately trying to keep the squirrel in focus while remaining as still as possible, hardly daring to breathe. She stops just a couple of feet away from me, waits for a second, looks up into my eyes, then both squirrels fly back up the tree, leaving me standing alone in the sunlight.

Just as I’m thinking of leaving the cemetery, the flower waterer arrives with her dog and calls out to me. While I accompany her on her rounds of the graves with the watering cans, I mention the name on the grave I’d seen earlier. She looks at me blankly. No, she doesn’t remember the name. I lead her to the grave.

“Ah . . . you should have said. Yes, she was a photographer, like you. She was young. She went to Paris.”

“Was it an accident?” I ask.

“No . . .”

The words then come so fast that I’m not able to piece the story together at first, but gradually I gather that it was an incurable illness. She was taken to Paris because she wanted to donate her organs.

“She gave her heart. She gave everything,” says the flower waterer. We walk back to the tap together in silence, contemplating the enormity of this gift.

I explain that I will be leaving in two days and that I’d like to have her address so I can send her some photos. I find a piece of paper and pen and begin to write: “Madame . . . ?”

“No, Madame is not necessary,” she says.

I ask her to spell her name. Can she write it for me? She hesitates, then rummages in her bag, finds an envelope, tears off the front, and hands me the scrap of paper with her address on it.

I thank her and tell her it has been a pleasure to get to know her. As we part, I kiss her on both cheeks and promise I will write to her soon.

“Yes,” she says sadly, “telephoning is expensive, isn’t it?”

It’s only as she’s walking away that it occurs to me that perhaps she’s unable to read or write.

*****

Photo by Zoe White
photo by Zoe White

I do realize that spending so much time in a graveyard is not everyone’s idea of a fun holiday. Most people wouldn’t come to a graveyard for pleasure. But I also know that something profound has taken place here; something that reaches far beyond the apparent events of these days.

The key is receptivity, the willingness to accept the invitation into stillness—the stillness that is at the center of all movement—and to become immersed in it. Stillness is not death; on the contrary, it is a quality of presence, pure and alive. In fact, it’s perhaps only in the heart of stillness that life truly lets itself be known and delighted in.

This, for me, is the gift of the graveyard; where no one is rushing; where squirrels play, flowers get watered, and the air sings.

 

 

Zoe White
Born and brought up in Enfield, North London, Zoe White began her working life as a medical secretary. She then served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service for four years, after which she co-owned and managed an art gallery in North Yorkshire. As a mature student, she took her M.Theol. degree from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and her M.Div. from the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in the USA. She subsequently taught English as a Foreign Language in France and Belgium, where she also organized conferences and seminars for international management training companies. She has facilitated workshops, led retreats and given talks on the contemplative life in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. Zoe sees contemplation as a creative inquiry, which she enjoys exploring through meditation, writing and photography. She lives in the Netherlands.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.