Reminder in a Ukrainian cemetery
Gabryela Zapolska was a feuilletonist. It’s okay, no one else knows what that is either. I only mention it because Gabryela’s name is in the Latin alphabet on her grave at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine. I wanted to give the story of an average person at that cemetery but most of the names are in Cyrillic, and all the ones I’ve googled are remarkable people. Like Gabryela, who was a novelist, playwright, journalist, theater critic, and stage actress. And a feuilletonist. I want to tell you all about her.
But then I wouldn’t have space to talk about Maria Konopnicka, yet another female novelist, poet, journalist, and critic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and who was also a noted activist for both Polish independence and women’s rights. (They named a crater on Venus after her, for crying out loud!) But these two noteworthy individuals just happened to be among the first discernible names in my photos from Lychakiv, and neither demonstrates what I want to relate.
Objectively speaking, it’s an impressive graveyard. Created in 1787 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire realized that dead bodies should probably be buried outside city limits, it began as the resting place for the area’s intelligentsia and elite, and my two crushes are minor attendants on the list of notables interred here. But Ukrainian history isn’t soft, and while some areas showed meticulous care and ongoing visitation, other zones were vine-shrouded piles of near rubble. Ornate statues and elaborate funerary architecture made monuments of some graves, but plenty of simple stone boxes or crumbled cement blocks provided punctuation to those life stories. The layout itself seemed contradictory, with broad boulevards of necropolis elegance that wrapped around clusters of chaotic dead ends. Oh, er, poor word choice? Culs de sac of corpses?
Despite this apparent coexistence of order and chaos, preservation and decay, all in a gorgeous space of tree-shaded coolness and mini meadows of golden northern light, the main feeling that grew in me was more than just calm. It was warmer than that. More human. I felt affection. (Or at least connection, though is there any meaningful difference between the two?)
Lychakiv might date back to 1787 but most of the dates I saw were 20th century. These people, whose faces often glowered, grinned, or glared out of old photos, were mostly Soviets. Military commanders looked formidable and unyielding in their uniforms, and I remembered that I had been raised to fear these people, obediently (and idiotically) hiding from nuclear devastation under my desk during drills because one never knew when The Enemy might unleash destruction.
But these people were not my enemies. They never were. These people were just people. Whether it was the husband and wife of fifty years, the feminist playwright, or the graves clustered around that of a boy who died after only six short years of life. People.
Graveyards normally spur a feisty adrenaline in me, a hedonistic urge to live loud in defiance of the death that’s waiting. This one did something else. Lychakiv made me want to sit and read a book in the late afternoon air, just hanging out with my fellow humans, my friends, and who cares if they might have said “comrade” instead?
It’s not a revolutionary insight. I’d say it’s more a base awareness we all have but sometimes manage to forget, but it was the lesson I re-learned that day. And I didn’t even know that one more lesson was planted, one that wouldn’t ripen until today, when I learned that a feuilletonist is someone who writes in the feuilleton, a newspaper supplement for all the non-political, non-news entertainment stuff. So Gabryela was not only a writer, journalist, and actress, she was also a gossip columnist. How utterly human.
Hi there, I really enjoyed this post of yours, thank you for sharing. When ever I have a chance to visit my home country in Europe, I love to go to cemeteries, like in Poland, Italy, France and Germany ( where I am from originally). It’s very interesting reading about other peoples life written on their gravestones, their accomplishments and also sufferings. Many years ago I spent an entire week in Paris, visiting the most beautiful cemeteries, where I photographed a lot, so many writers, musicians and artist are laid down there to rest in peace.
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Pere lachais! Or Montmartre? Or both and more? So many great places to wander around. My partner and I are bigs fans of the cemetery wander as you describe it, looking at the dates and wondering about the lives. In England last summer we found several clusters of tombstones with multiple marriages and branches of children over the years. It made me wish I could psychically know what happened to all of them, and grateful for the chance to imagine my own answers.
Hope you’re doing well (and getting plenty of nice walks through interesting places, whether or not they’re cemeteries) and cheers from California!
Thank you so much for your kind reply, Vagabond, if that’s your real name. Yes both or more, in Paris. Italian rural cemeteries are also very interesting to visit, because on their grave plate, it tells the life story of the diseased, which is often quite interesting to learn about their lives, as you mentioned you would love to know more about.
For know we are all limited to explore other places, but still I find photo objects in my neighborhood to share on Face Book. Stay safe and healthy.
Thanks for the tour. I find cemeteries fascinating.
I like visiting cemeteries.
They have a particular sort of beauty and elegance, don’t they? There’s a great one in Oakland where I live… Maybe I’ll head over there if it’s open and look for a post…
Do you have any particularly memorable cemeteries you’ve visited?
Yes indeed, beauty and elegance. I mainly visited the cemeteries in France, Paris for example: Père Lachaise, Montmartre, Montparnasse, Panthéon…, there are many stories and histries.
The most memoralbe one is in Bayeux, Omaha Beach, American Miilitary Cemetery, I met a grounp of american soldiers, one of them was original from Hong Kong, after we exchenged a few words, seeing him back to his term with his buddies saluted to thoses who losted their lives during the WWII. It’s a very touching moment …
I see dead people.
But do they see us?
Wonderful tour with some great history along with it. We do forget that they are mostly just normal people on both sides each afraid of the other for reasons sometime unknown. Great informative post.