What the Living Do

After a series of visits to the grave of her parents, a writer reflects on the importance of finding a special place to commune with the dead

If you’ve never had reason to visit the North Front Cemetery in Gibraltar (and why would you?), you might find it hard to imagine how it sprawls across hard, flat ground with that famous wedge of rock jutting into the clear blue sky, watching over the strategic strait to the south and over the dead to the north. At its foot lie Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and nothings-in-particular, all taking an eternal sun bath beneath this piece of British soil just eight miles from Africa. There, too, lie my mother and father.

I don’t claim to have made a comprehensive survey of cemeteries, but I have visited quite a variety. I like wandering where the spirits of the dead linger, and, in fact, just three blocks from my house in Portland, Oregon, is a beautiful graveyard. My dog used to love it as much as I do; we spent happy hours there together, I reading names that now belong to city streets as well as to early pioneers and she gamboling among the old oaks and cedars, dodging between headstones with her tongue hanging to her knees, and sprinting after squirrels that scurried up trees to spit their squirrelly curses down on her head. Together, we wandered among the Wetherbees and the Birrells, turned past chipped urns and carved stone trees, our bodies breaking the pearly spiderwebs that stretched between the granite markers and the iron bars of a mausoleum; sometimes our feet and paws stepped accidentally on the slabs naming Viola Cadonau and her Patricia, who died at three days old. But that was before the “No Dogs” sign went up and the place began to be patrolled by an army of women from the Cemetery Preservation Society or some such organization.

In New Orleans, I discovered that the dead lie not discreetly underground but overhead in massive tombs. In Mexico, I visited Pátzcuaro, where the dead lie on an island in the lake, and on the Day of the Dead, little boats full of festive, singing people make their way through the reeds and across the water while the music of guitars and trumpets echoes around the shore as night falls, the lanterns and candles on the island merging with the galaxy overhead. In London, I hunted down the square block in St. Pancras Old Church that memorializes Mary Wollstonecraft, and I explored Highgate Cemetery where George Eliot’s grave is surrounded by a wilderness of old-growth trees, shrubbery and flowers that shelter birds and foxes. Her friend and admirer, Elma Stuart, clearly knew the importance of a final resting place, having fought vigorously to be buried next to the writer.

To one who grew up by the blousy bluebell woods and smooth-flanked downs of Sussex, nothing will ever quite equal an old English churchyard. Indeed, I’ve never been able to shake off a certain regret that my parents do not lie near daffodils, under chestnut trees, in a graveyard filled with crooked stones and birdsong. Though they were infrequent churchgoers, the square Norman tower of the church, the lich gate and the local woman coming in to do the flowers would have been comfortably familiar. But like so many who are buried at Gibraltar, their final resting places were dictated by the sea.

I have visited quite a variety of cemeteries. I like wandering where the spirits of the dead linger.

There are two cemeteries in Gibraltar. The better-known one is The Trafalgar, named for the casualties of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, in which Adm. Lord Nelson was killed. Nelson, however, was not buried at Gibraltar; only two sailors who died in that battle are there. The North Front Cemetery; much larger than The Trafalgar, also has its share of maritime victims, old and new. John Trust Curtis, age 52, chief officer of the SS Sidoh, fell overboard and drowned in February 1883. More recently drowned, and arguably less careless, is a group who died when the Greek Line’s Lakonia caught fire, midway through a Christmas cruise, near the Canary Islands in 1963. Rescue ships picked up 128 bodies and took them to Gibraltar, where many were buried though some were transported to their home countries. A handful of Germans (Johann Feichtenschlager) and a few Greek crew members (Doannis Roussos) lie scattered around Section C, where the British majority also rests: Marjorie Spurgeon, Clara Bate, Joyce Potter, and, in plot number 3140, Reginald and Violet Barrington.

When I first went to Gibraltar, nine months after the Christmas cruise had come to its tragic end, I had just turned 20. I had been working for the summer in Spain as a tour guide for the Peralada Castle and winery, and my older sister, Ruth, flew out to Barcelona to meet me. Our parents had been buried with a temporary marker; our mission was to arrange for a permanent headstone.

After I picked Ruth up at the airport, we drove into the center of the city, where we settled at an outdoor cafe on Las Ramblas and spread a map of Spain across the white iron tabletop. Clearly she was shocked to see how far it was from Barcelona to Gibraltar—some five hundred miles on what would turn out to be a narrow two-lane road, choked with tourists, donkey carts and noxious trucks trailing blue exhaust.

What might have been a sort of pilgrimage to the symbol of our greatest loss was more like a reprise of the few years, long before, when we had lived at home together. As we drove down the coast, we stopped to spend nights in Tarragona, Cullera and Lorca. In the mornings, we sang old songs and ate grapes and melon until we were sticky with juice, and in the afternoons, when we got too hot in the open-top car, we stopped to run down a beach and plunge into the green sea.

We arrived in Gibraltar late, after a particularly long, hot drive along the Costa del Sol. Ruth had an angry burn on the side of her neck and her left arm where the sun had caught her as I drove west in my English right-hand-drive car. We never discussed, on that day or any other, what we would do when we arrived, nor, indeed, did we so much as mention our dead parents, it would be years before I met people who were unafraid to talk about them—years more before I tiptoed reluctantly out of denial and into grief. Strange as it seems now, we acted like two sisters enjoying a carefree holiday, which is, perhaps, why we were so startled when Gibraltar appeared and we crossed the frontier and checked ourselves into the Queens Hotel.

I remember that next day only as a short series of photographic images. There was my first glimpse of the cemetery, much emptier than it is now, with wide expanses of white ground between clumps of graves, each religion with its own section. Then a cluster of black wooden crosses named for Lakonia victims. I gazed at those temporary crosses, thinking, as I had thought the previous January at the memorial service, “This is a big thing; I really ought to be crying.” But such emotions as I could muster were dedicated to the present: drinking all night, dancing in bars, having complicated romances and staying perpetually on the move. Somewhere behind the frantic distractions, I knew that if I remained still and quiet for more than an hour or two, something awful would happen—something that I was nowhere near ready to cope with.

Two more images remain: the dark office where my sister made the engraving arrangements with the oily-haired cemetery manager and, then, in the late afternoon heat, the path high up on the Rock where notices warned us to hold on to our belongings and mangy apes held out their wrinkled palms for treats.

The only genuine feeling I can recall is the shock that jolted my whole body when we drove to the airport to find out when Ruth, who had a standby ticket, would be able to fly back to England. There was room on the very next flight, which would leave in two hours! We rushed back to the hotel, collected her suitcase, and then I found myself standing breathless in the small airport terminal, watching her plane tear down the runway, which crossed the isthmus connecting Gibraltar to Spain. Just when it seemed the plane would run right off the end of the tarmac into the ocean, it lifted off and climbed steeply into the twilight. I had never before felt so alone.

I had no choice but to stay on in my room at the Queen’s Hotel, which, that night, contained one very empty twin bed. The next morning, I was off again, speeding along with the top down, heading for Granada.

I didn’t return until 1987. In the twenty-three years since I’d been there, my parents’ remains had been moved, a stone marker had been erected, and the appearance of the cemetery had vastly changed.

With me this time, making the same journey by car from Barcelona, was another Ruth—not my sister, but the woman who had, at the time, been my partner for seven years. Without her, I probably would have never thought of going back; indeed, my family had no history or tradition that I knew of involving visits to the dead. But Ruth always visited her mother’s grave when she was nearby, and, to her, it seemed perfectly normal that I should do the same, even though I was, by then, living some 7,000 miles away.

Over the years, I watched as Ruth’s family observed the traditional Jewish customs that are so well-tailored to the natural human reactions following a death. When first her mother then her father died, I could see what a relief it was to have a structure for the bereaved laid out ahead of time as well as the things their extended family and friends knew to do to support them. The prescribed period of withdrawal, the return to limited participation in work and life, and the “unveiling” of the grave after eleven months to mark the end of grieving all seemed both practical and comforting. As I observed this carefully planned approach to mourning, I often wished that my brother and sister and I had had such rituals to help us as we muddled through, hardly allowing our grief any public expression.

It was October when Ruth and I rented an apartment, for two months, high up in the old Moorish village of Salobreña, with views across bright green fields of sugar cane to the Mediterranean; in the afternoon, waves rolled across the tall fronds as the wind stirred up patterns that repeated in the blue sea beyond. There, we settled into daily life, writing and reading, getting to know our neighbors and shopping in the square where a few farmers displayed their produce and half a dozen fishermen sold their daily catches for an hour every morning. Then, one day, we set out from Salobreña for our foray into Gibraltar and found our way to the cemetery.

I have written about that second visit, both in poems and in my memoir, Lifesaving: how Ruth and I went to the office, where the manager, Mr. Sanchez, ran a finger down the list of names—the writing spidery and the ink a faded blue—in a black ledger straight out of a Dickens novel. I wrote, too, about how we searched and searched, under the searing sun, for the grave and how I was haunted by Mr. Sanchez’s casual words when we persuaded him to help us. Standing helplessly near a sprawling patch of blackberries, he shrugged and gestured toward the bushes. “Could well be under there,” he said over his shoulder as he hurried back to the shade of his shack.

After that, we covered our heads with newspapers and spare shirts, and sat in despair on a wooden bench next to a hibiscus bush, but, in a sudden moment of confidence, I walked straight to the stone, which was broken and lying on its face in the weeds.

It was Ruth who realized that the visit could not be salvaged, and she suggested that we return a few weeks later. She encouraged me to write down what I might want to say at the graveside—a sort of address to the parents who had died before I had a chance to know them as an adult. As I walked in the afternoons around the village or on the headland jutting into the green sea, I mulled this over and made notes on the little pad I carried in my shorts’ pocket. I didn’t want to plead for acceptance, nor did I want to apologize; I knew they would have had a hard time understanding why I had chosen to follow a precarious living as a writer and to live my life as a lesbian, but I needed to trust that, had they lived, we would have found a way through the difficulties. So I dredged up all the dignity and pride I could and outlined the life I had created far away in Oregon: the writing and teaching; the interesting and challenging blend of cultures, landscapes and languages that permeated my daily existence; and the partnership around which everything else was built.

Five weeks later, when I sat on the ledge that outlined the grave next to my parents’, it was pleasantly hot. I thought about what a sun worshiper my mother had been—how every summer she had reclined in a deckchair in the back garden until she turned nut brown and how she had walked for hours around town when we vacationed in Spain, more energetic in the midday sun than she ever was in the gray months of an English winter. And I remembered my father on those hot summer holidays: his panama hat with the black band, his thin white legs on the beach and the sunburn that reddened his shoulders and balding head. For a moment, in this hot place a stone’s throw from Africa, I could almost hear my mother scolding him still: “For goodness sake, stay under the sunshade, Rex!”

The calm trilling of the cicadas sounded like Spain, not England, as did the distant clanking of construction outside the east wall—the ubiquitous background noise of coastal towns all around the Mediterranean. Occasionally, one of the large seagulls that circled the Rock would swoop down and cross the cemetery with a plaintive cry as if suddenly remembering to pay tribute to the dead. It was one such cry—a mewing which seemed to have collected all the grief that had ever risen from this place—that moved me from pleasant reveries into a bleakness as close to sorrow as I had yet come.

I lit the candle I had brought and dropped it into a jar. On the stump of the broken headstone, it burned steadily, offering a kind of hypnotic comfort as I focused on its flickering movement, which was all that was visible in the glaring sunlight. Then I placed four stones and a hibiscus bloom on the grave, unfolded my notes and began to speak in a low voice about my life. When I was finished and had grown quiet again, the silence seemed neither hostile nor laudatory; it was just profoundly still. I put the notes back in my pocket and was surprised to find tears running down my face. It felt good to sit there and cry quietly, almost peacefully; until the candle burned out.

Before we left, we went to find Mr. Sanchez to see about mending the stone. He assured us that the local stonemason would smooth off the jagged edge and make sure that the grave was well-finished and clearly marked. I handed him a wad of notes, wondering if it would go straight into his pocket, and warned him untruthfully that we would be back soon to look at the repairs. We had no plans to return.

Illustration by Anna Hall

In the spring of 2006, I was invited to teach a writing class at a lovely arts center in the mountains near Alicante. It was Ruth who again urged me to plan a visit to my parents’ grave and she who accompanied me when, after the workshop was over, we made our way, via Granada and Nerja, to Málaga, stopping along the way to look with resignation at the new developments along Salobreña’s beachfront.

The once tedious drive from Málaga through Torremolinos and Fuengirola, Marbella and Estepona, had become a fast but expensive trip along the new autopista, or tollway. We arrived at the main gate just as a large funeral procession emerged from the nearby chapel and proceeded with halting steps and muffled sobs into the cemetery. A young woman, popular in the community, had died suddenly; the benches that lined the covered entrance were piled high with wreaths.

Once again, we were struck by a fierce heat as we stepped into the North Front Cemetery, which looked disconcertingly different from how we remembered it. In the nineteen years since we were there, the cemetery had grown crowded; the different religions no longer had separate sections, and with all the infilling, the dead mingled ecumenically. Standing near the gate was a new director, more businesslike than Sanchez but too busy with the funeral to help us. A groundskeeper in a sweat-stained T-shirt walked with us toward Section C, pointing out the tall fir that marked its beginning and stating with confidence that all the Lakonia victims were buried near the east wall.

I had thought it would be easy to remember the location of the grave, but it wasn’t. The lay of the land was unrecognizable, full of new markers, some of which stood on a small, flat-topped hill that had not existed before. The only thing I felt sure about was that, no matter what the groundskeeper said, my parents were not buried anywhere near a wall.

The mournful tones of the priest conducting the burial nearby added to our mounting despair when we realized that, once again, we were searching under a scorching sun for a grave that was not marked on any map. A helpful secretary was able to locate the plot number, but in true Spanish fashion—British soil notwithstanding—the plot numbers turned out to bear no relationships at all to their locations.

Ruth had been smitten with an acute allergy attack and was popping Benadryl in the shade of the fir tree. The burial was over, and the mourners, enveloped in a throbbing cloud of grief, were drifting past us toward the gate, the older women leaning on younger men whose faces registered bewilderment.

“We’ve covered the whole of Section C,” Ruth said, trying not to sound worried.

“You don’t remember it being near the wall, do you?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, between sneezes and wheezes. “But maybe we should look there”

Ruth went oft in the direction of the wall, and I walked on down the path until I came to a wooden bench that seemed like the one we had sat on years earlier. Indeed, it was next to a tall bush that might well have been a hibiscus, though since it was not in bloom, I couldn’t be sure. Still, I was struck with the same sudden confidence that had struck me before. I stepped off the path into an overgrown area where, this time, there were no blackberries. Weeds and wild-flowers bloomed in a riot of spring colors: pink convolvulus, yellow buttercups, tall purple weeds I did not recognize and gorgeous scarlet poppies nodding their perfect heads. My feet caught in the tangled undergrowth and tripped on the rims of ancient graves, but there, in the midst of the cheerful blooms, partly obscured by foliage, I found the low stone marker, its mended top squared off and its face blotched with patches of lichen. Near the bottom, under my parents’ names, the writing was faint but legible: “Lost at Sea, December 1963.”

I felt no need, this time, to talk about myself or seek parental approval; it was no longer a matter of any importance that my parents give me and my life their blessing. The visits I had made were in no way a substitute for the regular conversations, weekend gatherings, bitter arguments or shared pleasures that mark an unfolding relationship with living parents. But through those trips to Gibraltar, I’d learned what others learn perhaps much earlier about visiting the dead: My parents had become real to me, and I was able to have a chat with them precisely because I was there at their very tangible resting place. I would certainly never have done it sitting in an armchair at home.

I’d learned what others learn perhaps much earlier about visiting the dead: My parents had become real to me.

Of course, those few trips to Gibraltar, decades apart, were not by any means the only times when I felt myself move along in relationship to my parents. But there was something about sitting by the grave that allowed me to turn aside from the deep rut of the familiar and step out in new directions. Each time I was there, something shifted a little; first, I’d acknowledged the particular loneliness of living without parents since the age of 19, and then, I’d been able to look past my own loss and comprehend their awful experience. Now I was left only with an appreciation for the people they had been.

Ruth settled on her shady tomb and pulled out a copy of the poem I had written after our previous visit—a poem describing the frustrating search for the grave and expressing certainty that I would never return. I had intended to read it there, but finding myself close to tears, I asked her, instead, to read it aloud. When she came to the end, we both cried a little and then, after a few minutes, smiled: We had returned after all.

For a while, we sat on in silence: no construction noise this time but still the ubiquitous cicadas. A red admiral butterfly trembled in the air over the headstone—the white spots near its wingtips brilliant against the black of its upper body, and the red band across its forewings catching the light. It seemed in no hurry to move on; indeed, it appeared to be offering something, perhaps just a few minutes of bright companionship.

In some cultures, people believe butterflies to be the spirits of the dead returning, and in seventeenth-century Ireland, killing a white butterfly was prohibited because it was believed to be the soul of a dead child. For a moment, I wondered if this butterfly was a visiting soul. One of my long dead parents? Or perhaps our recently dead beloved dog, come back to offer the comfort she had always brought? But the ledge beneath my thighs was too rock-solid, the air too suffused with the salty breeze and the perfume of wild flowers, for my thoughts to stray to an invisible world—out of sight, beyond this hard-baked earth—that I didn’t believe in. If the souls of the dead were anywhere, they were surely right beside me in the tiny petals of the convolvulus and the smooth granite of this and every gravestone in every cemetery around the world. The dead had no need to hitch a ride with a butterfly; the red admiral’s spirit was all its own.

In 1983, on a trip to England, Ruth and I scouted out sites connected to women we admired from the past: women like Virginia Woolf, Emmeline Pankhurst, Barbara Hep worth and many others. It annoyed us that so few women were represented among those whose homes are marked with plaques or whose special places are described in guide books. Inevitably, our search included graves.

Graves have a power that draw us and occasionally ignites a spark between the living and the dead.

It was the Mary Wollstonecraft memorial that got us thinking about graves. Leaning against her square chunk of stone, we reflected on how much more real a person, even one long dead, seems when there is a place to visit. We had read her books, and we could picture her from the illustrations in the biographies we had read. Yet, there was something different about being there. We sat in the longish grass, and the warm, rough surface pressed into our backs, insisting that this woman had once been much more than history; more than legend; more, even, than the brave, wise words for which she is famous. She had been flesh and blood—a warm being who might, at any moment, come striding through the buttercups in her long skirt and boots, throwing back her head and laughing.

I wonder now if a grave is any different from other memorials. Certainly, our visits to Virginia Woolf’s home, Monk’s House, Radclyffe Hall’s White Cottage, and Barbara Hepworth’s house and studio in St. Ives all resembled our visit to the St. Pancras churchyard in that they added new dimensions to our sense of those remarkable women. Yet, graveyards seem to offer their own uniquely special moments. In the last few years, I have seen the orderly graves standing at attention in Normandy, the rose-covered gateway to a churchyard on the Isle of Wight and the windswept graveyard in the slate-gray village of Heptonstall, Yorkshire, where Sylvia Plath lies beneath unruly bouquets and passionate notes. In each of these places, people come to carry on a relationship that was snatched from them by illness, accident or the slow weathering of time that finally felled the one they loved. Such a place has a power that draws us, whether or not we personally knew the one who is buried there, and that power occasionally ignites a spark between the living and the dead.

It is possible that a grave is especially powerful because it houses the bones of the dead. People have speculated that elephants create their own graveyards, leaving the herd and seeking, when they are about to die, a place that is special precisely because many elephant bones lie there. And, of course, in many human cultures, burial sites and the bones of the dead are sacred. But what Ruth and I didn’t know when we leaned against Mary Wollstonecraft’s stone and felt her strong presence was that her bones had long since been moved to Bournemouth, where she and her husband, William Godwin, were reburied beside their daughter, Mary Shelley.

It’s true that I thought about my mother’s crumbling bones when I sat under the shadow of the Rock, conjuring up her living presence. But I hope that underground scapulas and tibias and worm-infested skulls are not essential to communing with the dead because, for all kinds of reasons, I believe in cremation. What matters most is surely the existence of a special place where one can talk to the dead; where what is unfinished can, over time, become a little more resolved; where the living continue to grow and the dead do whatever it is the dead do.

About the Author

Judith Barrington

Judith Barrington is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Long Love: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2018). Lifesaving: A Memoir was the winner of the Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir.

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