You’re a long time dead

I’ve always had a thing about graveyards, or more precisely, gravestones, and the weird and wonderful things people inscribe on them. I remember seeing one in a village graveyard somewhere in the Lake District that was dedicated to someone who’d spent his life obsessively following cricket, which, in itself is pretty bloody weird to me. The granite slab was decorated with carved balls, crossed bats, cap and other cricketing impedimenta, and inscribed with all the obvious cricketing references; ‘he’s hit his last ball’, ‘his stumps have finally been pulled’, etc, although it didn’t say when it was that he ‘bowled his last maiden over’, (a reference that will mean absolutely nothing to most of you foreigners, and I don’t intend to try and explain it). It was wonderfully kitsch, but one a couple of places along the row had me giggling giddily. The base on which the ornate cross stood had cracked, causing the cross to tilt at an angle that would have made the Titanic in its death throws seem upright. But what creased me up was that the dearly departed lying below it had been a structural engineer! I wondered how he’d explain his way out of that in the afterlife.

A couple of days ago I took myself by bike to Valencia’s Cementario Municipal, something I do a couple of times a year, for no reason other than I like the ride and the place has some wonderfully kitsch memorials. Normally it’s quite quiet, but I was taken by surprise this time when I saw a crowd of mainly elderly people milling around. It turned out they were there for the departure of the Virgen del los Desamparados, the patron saint of the Valencian Community, who had spent the night in the chapel as part of her brief annual holiday away from the Basilica in the centre of Valencia. Of course, we’re talking about a statue, here, but it seems she doesn’t get out of the city much, so I suppose even a night in a cemetery is a change of scenery.

Just as I arrived, the bearers that carry her hefted her platform onto their shoulders and, swaying ever so gently, followed by a group of adoring, singing sycophants, began to carry her out of the cemetery – in reverse, possibly so she could get a last view of her home-away-from home until next years hols. As they approached the arched main gate they gingerly dipped to make sure the Sainted Lady’s crown didn’t clip the low metalwork of the arch. A group of young people busily gathering in the folding chairs used for the service were laying side bets as to whether she’d make a clean getaway. The hushed crowd watched nervously as their lady bobbed under the archway, then the grand candelabra in the entrance foyer, applauding each successful dip, ending with a tremendous ovation as she cleared the third and final obstacle, and once more emerged into unobstructed sunshine.

The cemetery is huge, and at almost every intersection there’s a map of the layout. While it falls short of actually having a ‘You Are Here’ arrow, at least you can work out where you are by the numbered aisles. As far as the map tells you, it has both an Islamic and British cemetery, the former, marked by a crescent moon, tucked as far to the back as you can get without actually climbing over the perimeter wall, but of the other I couldn’t find any sign other than the union flag at the bottom of the panel to tell me it exists. I set off in the direction of the Cementario Islámico interested to find out how different their form of burial was.

You walk through seemingly never ending rows of niches, spreading off in all directions, like rows of cottages in a pit village, but with too many windows and not enough doors. The departed of the rich and famous sleep in better homes that some of the living people I know, their sepulchres ornately outlandish in a sort of ‘wedding cake’ style of architecture. While some of the mausoleums and headstones give a nod in the direction of modernity, and not always a polite nod, as in the case of the particularly ugly erection of the Familia Cortes Muñoz, that stands like a two-storey homage to insipid pink marble and uninspired coloured leaded glass, most are decorated in the traditional manner; angels, crucified Christ, figures of the Virgen de los Desamparados and the like. Most have oval photos of the deceased, faded to sepia over time – although if I’m going to have a picture of me on public display for decades to come, I’d rather it was something of me in my prime, even if I’m not sure I ever had one. Many are decked out as forever spring in garlands of gaudy plastic flowers, the colours of which would never be found in nature. Scattered here and there are the niches of those who didn’t have the readies for a permanent memorial, such as Manolita Serra, who shrugged her mortal coil on 18-X-1988, and possibly her relative Maria Luise Serra, who joined her in heaven on 16-VII-1999, who had to settle for having their names and dates of departure simply scraped in the drying plaster with a stick.

Suddenly a siren as eyrie as a war-time bomb alert rents the air, warning that the cemetery will close in fifteen minutes. I sill haven’t found the Islamic cemetery and, as much as I like the architecture and tranquil surroundings, I don’t fancy spending the night here. I make a dash to where the sign told me it should be, only to find it locked up. Apparently I should have asked for the key.

I ask the attendant where the British Cemetery is and he points over the road to a small building, the British Protestant Cemetery, padlocked and chained, that looks drab and colourless compared to the Technicolor funereal theme park behind me. It would seem that the followers of Muhammad are deemed closer to God than the Protestant infidels, because at least they are allowed inside the Catholic domain of the Cementario Municipal.

As I leave, an elderly lady, not long from her niche, leans on her walking stick and carefully picks up some of the rose petals previously scattered at the feet of the Virgin. Across the street the florists put away their buckets of blooms and ornate arrangements, before hosing down the pavement, possibly hoping that there will be a decent crowd tomorrow to clear the shop before all they’ve got left are a collection of fading blossoms.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, www.derekworkman-journalist.com , and Spain Uncovered

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