We can learn a lot from cemeteries. The ways in which we memorialize our lost loved ones are a telling commentary on our views of life and death as a society. Some people celebrate their dead as they pass from one form of life into another; others recognize some sort of afterlife; less-religious bereaved simply wish to leave a lasting marker honoring the memory of a family member.
I love a good Irish cemetery tour, and I recently visited our local neighborhood resting place, Donnybrook Cemetery. We noticed this hidden churchyard our first week in Dublin, but had never been inside the locked gates. It is only open by guided tour, and I was finally available when a member of the Ballsbridge, Donnybrook, and Sandymount Historical Society was giving a free walk and talk through the cemetery.
A number of Irish-famous people are buried here in Donnybrook—of several thousand tightly-packed graves in total—but I was more interested in the imagery of the grave markers. Most had suffered decades (or centuries) of neglect and vandalism, but they still painted an interesting picture when seen in the sun-dappled churchyard.
On the stones with legible markings, I read the descriptions of the people buried within: their occupation (Groc’r, Gentleman, Barrister-at-Law), their family members, and even their local Dublin address! Sad stories of family tragedy were laid out as entire families were marked on the same stone, dying within months of one another. In times when cholera and death in childbirth were all too common, it wouldn’t have been unusual for families to suffer losses such as these.
This graveyard being in Ireland, there was plenty of pleasant green among the sad gray stones. Ivy crept along the path and up some of the out-of-the-way stones, and holly grew in the shade of larger trees. In ancient, pre-Christian times, as now, holly was a symbol of fertility and everlasting life—staying green and lush and fruiting bright red berries through the winter. This is why we still think of holly at Christmas, when all of our seasonal temperate trees and plantlife are dormant and dead.
Donnybrook Cemetery is accessible locally by guided tours, which are announced and advertised by a sign on the gate. If you happen to be in South Dublin on a Saturday afternoon, be on the lookout for this fabulous—but not glamorous—free cemetery tour.