It is a warm day in October, the sun laying slantways across the new paths and ancient monuments of Glasnevin cemetery. The wind is tossing the dark branches of the close-cropped yews, and scattering bright leaves from the many trees which overhang graves both old and new. My friend Maria and I have just finished the guided tour and have drifted off alone – deep into the old and mostly unrestored heart of the graveyard. We walk for quite some time, wandering happily among the leaning stones, the graceful statues, the ornate vaults. We read the many inscriptions. Some are clear and sharp as the day they were carved, some so faded and worn as to be nothing but shallow undulations on the weather pocked stone. We laugh at how self important some of the tombs are, we wonder how long it took for folks to stop laying flowers at them. We stop at one particularly frothy marble concoction and wonder if the nameless bones beneath are miffed that they have been forgotten.
There is something, I don’t know what, that makes us pause then, and in that pause the vastness of this place makes itself known. We stop chatting, suddenly aware of how quiet it is, of how distant the sound of traffic has become. Over one million people are buried here. When the guide said this, it was easy enough to digest. Now, standing on a relatively clear grassy patch, listening to the wind murmur and the birds make merry in the last of the summer’s sunshine, we are aware of it as fact. Gravestones jostle each other as far as the eye can see; shoulder to shoulder in chaotic tumbling rows they march away in all directions to the edges of a hazy horizon. We stand amidst the bones of over a million dead.
Maria and I say nothing for a long moment – this is rare for us, we have been friends for over thirty years, we are rarely silent in each other’s company.
We have been discussing our children: her boys are in primary school, mine in college and facing the leaving cert, poised on the brink of flight. We’ve confessed to being amazed by these things, and by the two women we see when our teenage selves look in the mirror. We have been laughing at our stiff knees and new-found love of dahlias ( hitherto regarded as ‘granny’ flowers) We have been joking about the relentless march of time.
Maria’s grandfather was a gravedigger here. His father was a gravedigger before him. The guide had some cheery stories to tell about the gravediggers; about their fondness for leaving anniversary pints on Brendan Behan’s grave, about their merry relationship with the The Gravediggers Pub. We all chuckled.
‘It’s a strange reminder of your own mortality, isn’t it?’ Maria says now. ‘Digging graves in the place where someday, somebody else will be
‘They say we’re the only animals who are aware of our own mortality.’
We are no strangers to death, she having lost her much loved brother at too young an age, my father living as he is under the ticking shadow of the cancer we know he shall not beat. I think of my Dad, that voluble, intelligent, handy little man. We are great friends. I love him dearly. He’s someone who knows what it is to seize the day. He’s someone who has truly lived.
I’m not talking about extreme sports type living, or leaving your spouse and kids to backpack the Himalayas type living. I’m talking about small moments that have made big memories. Like dragging two small kids out of bed in the middle of the night and driving them to the beach so they can watch a lightening storm come in across the sea, or taking the same kids, now teens, fishing in a stream out the back of some railway tracks and discovering Kingfishers and fox cubs in the heart of a city where most folks wouldn’t believe they existed.
Maria and I begin walking again. We descend steps and walk passageways lined with crypts. It is not long before we are laughing and sticking our cameras into broken sarcophagus lids, taking flash photographs. We hope for skulls, but find only startled beer cans and plastic bottles.
We walk back in search of tea and cake, and I think of my Dad again. Of how he greets each day with joy. Of how, even now, after the cancer and the painkillers would have turn most of us to stone, he is still the kind of man who can look up and say, wow, isn’t that a beautiful sky. His is a uniquely human heroism, a uniquely human heroism of grace. It is not to be forgotten.
An edited version of this article appeared in You Magazine, Sat 13th Nov 2010.