The Great Divide

You can learn a lot about a society by visiting the place where it buries its dead: as well as gaining a sense of its history you can form an understanding of its character and values. Often the experience can be every bit as illuminating as spending time in the company of the living.

Whenever I’m photographing a town or city I try to build in time for a visit to the local cemetery. At certain times of the year, such as All Souls Day or Tet, they become the venue for community-wide celebrations of remembrance and worship. Such occasions can provide strong, vibrant photos, so long as you’re careful to be discreet and show respect to those taking part. Then, by contrast, there are the great necropolises that contain the graves and monuments of the famous, their morbid landmarks always ensuring a constant flow of curious visitors whose reactions to them can result in some interesting images for the sharp-eyed photographer.

But I prefer to wander around the less popular parts of such sites. Especially on a warm spring afternoon, when the vegetation attains a technicolor brilliance and the air is heavy with a drowsy, buzzing heat. There’s something quite humbling about being in the presence of the forgotten, among the silence and the ranks of headstones whose inscriptions – once so studiously inscribed – now reveal little more than indeterminate squiggles. Some are still visited, if only by a muffle-eared council employee giving the grass around them a perfunctory cut, while others gently recede behind swags of greenery, wholly abandoned, their existence apparent only to the area’s resident wildlife.

Perhaps it’s just me, but as a traveller and a photographer I find these places quite enchanting.

M Brooks_Krakow_Remuh_Cemetery 2_
The Jewish cemetery next to the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Stones placed by respectful visitors on headstones and graves are said to signify the permanence of memory. 20mm lens.
M Brooks_Hungary_Kerepsi_Cemetery 1_
Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest. A nineteenth century grave becoming engulfed by ivy and weeds. 105mm lens
M Brooks_Hungary_Kerepsi_Cemetery 2_
Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest. A grave in the section dedicated to those who participated in the 1956 uprising against the communist government. The national flag on the left has had the circular insignia of the Hungarian Communist Party cut out. 24mm lens
M Brooks_Hungary_Kerepsi_Cemetery 3_
Kerepesi Cemetery, Hungary. A vase of roses placed at the feet of the central figure in the sprawling Pantheon Of The Working Class Movement – a huge monument dedicated to those who “lived for Communism and the People”. Sited about 50 metres from the area in the preceding shot, but a world away ideologically… 105mm lens
M Brooks_Sicily_Marsala_Cemetery_
All Souls Day, Marsala, Sicily. Throughout the day the people of the town visit the cemetery in remembrance of friends and loved ones. It’s a wonderful event to witness. 20mm lens
M Brooks_Paris_Pere Lachaise_Cemetery 2_
Pere Lachaise, Paris. One of the great necropolises. There are probably more famous names buried here than on any single plot of land anywhere – yet they number a mere fraction of the site’s total ‘residents’. 28mm lens
M Brooks_Paris_Pere Lachaise_Cemetery 1_
Pere Lachaise, Paris. A section of the perspex screen around the Oscar Wilde monument. No visit to Pere Lachaise is complete without indulging in a bit of graffiti on Oscar’s protective screen. 28mm lens
M Brooks_Bury St Edmunds_St Mary's_Churchyard 2_
The Great Churchyard, Bury St Edmunds. You don’t have to visit great cities to find fascinating cemeteries. Here’s my local churchyard in Suffolk – a space I never tire of walking through at any time of the year! 35mm lens

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