In thirty years of marriage I have visited my wife’s ancestral hometown of Lippstadt, Germany, four times. That means I have visited the local cemetery four times. There are family graves there going back to the 18th century, maybe older for all I know. It is a ritual that cannot be missed, though usually it gets postponed and happens in a rush the evening before we leave.
I always wonder about the need for this excursion. I’m relatively new in the family and most of the names are just that to me, names of people I never met. There are no memories attached to them. But I think my ambivalence about the trip goes beyond that.
My maternal grandparents died in 1966. They are buried in Toronto, Mount Pleasant Cemetery I think, though I do not know for sure since I have never visited their graves. My father died in 2011. I have driven past the cemetery where his earthly remains are interred, but I haven’t been there since the urn containing his ashes was lowered into the grave. I figure someone would have told me if they were no longer there. Visiting gravesites just isn’t something I do – I have my memories and that is sufficient.
So why do I have to go to the cemetery in Lippstadt on each visit? I’ve looked at the family tree, I understand the relationships, but I have no emotional connection to the graves of people I have never met (nor really to those of the relatives I did meet). And I don’t really see how Vivian can have an emotional attachment to someone who died a century before she was born. Not to forget that, as I discovered the hard way, a visit to the cemetery carries with it a certain amount of risk.
In 2009 when Vivian and I visited Lippstadt we went out for dinner with her Aunt Eva at Eva’s favourite restaurant. It is a summertime tradition – a wonderful meal outdoors on the patio in a rural setting only a ten minute walk from our hotel. Afterwards Eva went home while we went to the cemetery to pay our respects to the family graves.
It was a warm summer night and we were in no hurry. We entered the cemetery about 8:30 p.m. and saw the family plots and some other interesting ones also. While I don’t understand why we visit cemeteries from an emotional perspective, I do appreciate the history they represent and I enjoy just wandering and looking at the inscriptions on the headstones. It stays light pretty late in Lippstadt in July, so we didn’t worry about the time. That was our mistake.
It turns out that at 9 p.m. they lock the cemetery gates – without checking to see if there is anyone inside. We couldn’t climb over the gates, they were too high. After about 15 minutes of searching, when it was getting pretty dark, we found a spot where the wall was low enough to climb.
The next morning we had breakfast with Eva and we told her about our cemetery adventures. She said yes, she knew they locked the gates at 9 p.m. because just a couple of weeks previously she had had the same problem – locked in the cemetery with her bike. So she too found a place where the wall was lower, lifted her bike over and then climbed over herself. After all, she was only 86, it wasn’t too difficult.
I know the next time we visit Lippstadt I will once again trudge off to the cemetery and once again look at the same family graves. This is tradition. I accept tradition, even if it sometimes seems a little strange to me.