Turns out that I’m a taphophile. That’s my language discovery for today. I love it when I learn new words in my own language.
I was wondering if I was alone in my predilection for visiting graveyards. Apparently not. Of course, I knew I wasn’t, because you only have to go to, say, Grasmere, in the English Lake District any sunny day, and you have to queue to read the words on William Wordsworth’s tombstone. What I didn’t know was that there is a word for it, but according to Wikipedia, a taphophile is what I am. I checked in dictionaries and most don’t imply it’s a morbid fascination with dead stuff, although one did.
It’s a fondness for visiting graveyards. I don’t think that I was so much of a tombstone tourist (another appellation Wikipedia sites) before I lived in Spain, although I may have been odd, if not unique, in heading straight for Les Invalides to view Napoleon’s last resting place on my only visit to Paris as a young woman.
Lack of interest previously may have been due to the bleakness of English graveyards, with their heavy, grey stone grave markers; indeed with their dreary, stone churches. I never liked English churches (of any denomination) much either. It always seemed to me odd that God would want to reside in places so drear and sombre, but …..let’s not go there today.
Apart from tombs within churches, the first graveyard I actually remember liking, was what was then called The English cemetary in Rome. I was 20 and still had romantic (and Romantic) notions, so a visit to the place where Keats and Shelley were buried was de rigueur. In the heat of a late Roman spring, it was cool and peaceful, and made a lasting impression (clearly). Sadly, no photos have survived, and I’ve never been back on subsequent visits to Rome.
The other implanted vividly in memory is the tiny cemetery in Eze in Provence. In a village which itself feels as if it has a tenuous grip on a mountainside, the church and graveyard seem to be stuck on as an after thought, and it is so intimate that I couldn’t even raise my camera. It felt intrusive to take snaps.
I felt exactly that way a couple of times visiting the small graveyard at San Andres, the village which snuggles under the lofty peaks of Anaga Mountains, almost at the tip of Tenerife, and just ten minutes from capital, Santa Cruz.
Most cemeteries in Tenerife aren’t the sad nor the gloomy ones I’d seen in the UK. Neither to they have the elaborate monuments to the deceased seen in some cemeteries (although I must declare a fondness for some of those!) They are like small, walled villages, with graves in slots in the walls, almost always painted white and full of flowers. Perhaps it’s the flowers which make them into more accepting places. Often they are sited on hillsides above a town or village, with amazing views. I have no idea if that’s intentional or not. I like to think that the dear departed have a nice view on a sunny day, or that they are watching over their loved ones below. Although someone once pointed out to me that it probably had more to do with keeping bad smells away from the community in the days when such things were unavoidable! Where English graveyards concentrate on loss, Spanish ones seem to concentrate more on gratitude for the life lived, it seems to me anyway.
The glimpses of sadness come when you spot a grave which hasn’t been attended. Where cobwebs shimmer on the mementos left behind the glass fronts, and dust gathers, but overall they’re quite cheery places, especially after All Souls night, on November 1st, when the tradition of taking flowers to family graves is still much observed, though so far as I know, the Mexican way of holding a party on the grave doesn’t happen here. I like that though, the thought of including the departed in family events. In some parts of Africa deceased family are buried beneath the floor of the family home. holding their spirit close. I like that too.
San Andres is different, the graves are sunk into the sandy ground, not stacked one upon the other. None is recent. Few are adorned with flowers or other memoria, though a handful are. The incongruity of its siting lends to the desolate atmosphere. It lies, apologetically, alongside the golden sands of Las Teresitas Beach – a Town Hall project which imported sand from the Sahara (something now banned) to create a beach to rival the South Pacific islands. That was 40 years ago. The project has been stuck fast in Spanish red tape ever since.
It has a curious claim to fame. When you mention it to come locals they say that the cover of the U2 album “Achtung Baby” was shot there. That seems to be an exaggeration. Certainly photographs shot in Tenerife, most identifiably the Trabant at Las Teresitas beach, very close by, were used, but actually in the graveyard? I couldn’t identify any.
It’s the sort of place which prompts a dozens questions, makes you want to know more, about the place, about the folk who lie there, some children. Perhaps one day I will find answers, but for now I can only leave you with photographs,.and perhaps the same questions.
I know that some of you might find this post distasteful. I have to say I went 3 times to San Andres before I could bring myself to take photos, and even in Santiago del Teide I hesitated, and yet, these are public places, and the expressions of love and caring shown in the flowers and other mementos are touching and surely meant to be seen. If my mom had a grave I would want it to express what a loving and caring person she was, and I would want the world to know that, and having explained that I give you my last snap, because I love the figure in the center, and I think it speaks volumes for the person and his family.