One of my favourite places to visit in Montreal is Mount Royal Cemetery.
It is a lovely, quiet place to walk and reflect on all the names and dates of people that no longer exist written on the slabs and obelisks and statues that adorn the hilly leas of this pacific neighbourhood atop Mount Royal.
Today it was raining fairly heavily, so I drove slowly up and down more narrow avenues than I would have on foot. I was struck how, in places, the panorama looked like a petrified forest of lifeless stumps and in others like smaller versions of the structures of the long abandoned kingdom of Charn from one of the illustrations by Pauline Baynes in C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew”.
One of the avenues taken went past row upon row of white tablets with the same expiry dates (1939-45) and carved maple leaves. A mini version of Flanders Fields. These are from the hapless casualties of Canadian troops in the Second World War. I was thinking they were among the fortunate to have been repatriated and interred in their homeland, but there is nothing fortunate about being brutally deprived of a full life. Ironically there are cannons in these fields to mark them as military.
Yet another fork in the road led me for the first time to an area set apart that was filled with tombstones marked with Chinese writing and symbols. I don’t know whether this was a systemic Apartheid or the efforts of an ethnic community to establish their own area. A dead Chinatown. Maybe it is just so the living mourners can find what they are looking for more easily by this classification like finding jazz albums in a second hand store without having to flip through all sorts of pop and classical albums to get there.
The cemetery I was in is the Protestant one, so mostly Anglo. The Catholic Cemetery (Notre Dame-des-Neiges) is right beside it to the west, separated by an iron fence. The Jewish Cemetery is similarly on the other side of a fence to the north. The great leveller of all living beings is death. The cultural differences and things that set us apart in life should disappear with us, but they don’t.
I wondered if I would have liked any of these people interred here and if they would have liked me. There are at least two. My mum’s best friend and my ex’s brother are buried here. I also spotted a family plot near the road that I recognized. It had a former grade two classmate of mine who was an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic.
It is obvious that some of the graves are from moneyed families. The bigger the monument, the more ornate, the information carved deeper and less susceptible to erosion or to be obscured by lichen. One huge monument was tilting precariously as a huge hardwood tree’s roots have been pushing up relentlessly for over a hundred years. Nothing lasts forever.
My great grandfather was a stone carver and had his own monument business in East Finchley which is a suburb of London, England. He would have been able to tell me with an expert vocabulary about everything in sight in great detail. I never met him. My grandfather escaped an apprenticeship in stone carving by emigrating overseas to Canada. I am not entirely sure of his motivation to do so, but I gathered that the certainty of working with his hands under the tyrannical tutelage of his father who my grandfather referred to as “the old pot” was far less attractive to an unknown future in an unknown land.
As we approach the inevitable with less in front of us than we have behind us, it is only natural to want to prepare. Some people buy plots, choose tombs, pre-plan funerals. They don’t want to leave a mess for their loved ones. There are some graves I saw that have names and birth dates on them and a hyphen …..waiting to be completed. I don’t want that.
My wife says she wants her obituary to be: “I’m dead. Move along”. Although I would tell you, if asked, that I don’t care, a Folgers tin would suit me fine as long as I didn’t have to drink it (it might kill me).
I kind of do care. I wish to be remembered fondly by loved ones, maybe someone in the future listen to some music I wrote or read some scribblings of mine or remember something good I did in my life, laugh. Ultimately though, it amounts to naught. I won’t be there, and, like the names carved in stone, will fade with time and return to dust like my ancestors.
On my tour, I crossed paths with an itinerant man with his possessions in a bag in a far recess of the cemetery. I was immediately struck by the irony of him living among the dead, but I also thought of the advantages. Dead people probably make great neighbours. No complaints, no arguments, no worries, no gossip.
I am going to stop being morbid and live each day to the fullest. I don’t want to be dead before I die. Living among the dead is ultimately better than being dead among the living.