For some reason, I have always been attracted to old cemeteries. There’s something in the little necropolis that arouses a mix of curiosity, aesthetic delight, nostalgia and dread. Desolate, quiet and far away from social constraints that condemn the living, the old public cemeteries provide refuge to the homeless, illicit lovers, junkies, criminals and other misfits.
It is easy for adults to warn children not to go near the old cemeteries. Horror movies always show them as places where zombies suddenly rising from their graves and ghosts or vampires roaming free.
But growing up, you realize that those “creeps” that lurk in the cemeteries are actually people running away from the city of the living. When once, on a dare from grade school classmates, we strayed into the hilltop public cemetery in our hometown, we noticed that a gang or fraternity was conducting a hazing session. They also seemed to be drunk with booze or high on pot, so we ran back as fast as we could.
In high school, I overcame my fear of the cemetery after I had to regularly pass through it to run some regular early evening errands. I would start when it was still dusk, but it would usually turn dark when I returned. At first, I always ran past the graves, thinking of the zombies in “Evil Dead” which we had just seen on Betamax or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” which was always on MTV. But later, I got used to the sight of white tombs along the narrow road that led to what we then called “civilization.”
Studying art and history in college, I became fascinated with local heritage and suddenly those old cement sculptures of angels and cherubims done in the classical style became interesting. They looked good as background for some imaginary surrealist music video my boardmates and I imagined ourselves to be making one day.
In the meantime, we had to make do with the more practical goal of turning our communal bedroom into a sampler of a surrealist set design. All budding artists still given to shock value, we conspired to steal aged sculpture from the public cemeteries.
But, as it turned out, there was nothing that we could get without removing it from its base or light enough that we could carry without being noticed. A few days later, my friends brought home a few skulls that became paper weight, candle holder or actual model of our anatomical drawing practice.
Old mausoleums, classic sculpture, and tombstones carved in turn-of-the-century art nouveau or neoclassical style are rarely seen nowadays in public cemeteries. Instead, there is a proliferation of extravagant and pretentious private mausoleums and memorial gardens done in contemporary vernacular style.
Perhaps, we blame it on those enterprising vandals who strip tombstones of brass letters, strip mausoleums of granite or marble tiles, and break antique statues in order to remove their armature of iron bars for selling at the junk shop. But in fact, they could also be like us or vandals with artistic pretensions.
Recently, with another group of Cebuano artists, I had a chance to see the old Pere-Lachaise public cemetery in Paris. It is there where famous artists like Eugene Delacroix, Georges Seurat, Modigliani, Camille Pissaro, pioneering filmmaker George Melies, the composer Frederic Chopin, the writer Oscar Wilde and even the ‘70s rock star Jim Morrison are buried.
A mix of old and new tombs and mausoleums, something like it must have been how our own old public cemeteries looked like if we just took care of preserving their old structures. It was a delight to see how the structures and monuments in the French necropolis reflected the tastes of those people that built them.
The mix of Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classical and Art Nouveau, etc. in the cemetery’s architecture add to its distinct charm. In fact, owing also to its orderliness and tidiness, the cemetery is a tourist site. It has its own traffic of visitors, most of whom are rock fans who came to see Jim Morrison’s grave.
But unlike before, where people could still leave graffiti on the grave, a bottle of whisky or butts of joints, the place is now fenced with the sign telling people not to jump over or “break on through to the other side.” Jim Morrison, the ultimate misfit, would probably prefer being laid to rest in the public cemeteries in the Philippines.