I stumbled upon Ludwig van Beethoven’s grave by accident. I was there specifically to pay my respects, of course, but to come across a large marble slab embellished with just that famous surname was still mildly disconcerting. I stepped up to the grave gingerly, aware that this was possibly the worst thing a tourist could do, but determined to spend a few minutes in silence nonetheless. And then, to the right, I noticed another tombstone over the earthly remains of Franz Schubert. To his right lay a bust of Johannes Brahms, right hand on forehead, presumably contemplating his immortality. Johann Strauss was at peace a few steps away and, in the centre of this exalted circle, stood a memorial to the missing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose remains had, centuries ago, been lost forever.
These giants — locals referred to them as ehrengrab or ‘graves of honour’ — lay in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna’s main cemetery, which I had come to via a long trip on the metro, followed by a tram ride. I was there not out of morbid curiosity, or mere respect for these composers who had provided me with a soundtrack for my life, but because I often find cemeteries to be as beautiful as museums. They hold stories, for those who take the time to listen. Beethoven, for instance, was exhumed twice before being laid here; once because his burial site wasn’t good enough, and then because a second cemetery was forced to shut. Schubert was buried twice too, removed from Währinger Ortsfriedhof, a cemetery that is now a park, and placed beside his idol for all time.
It isn’t as creepy as it sounds, this idea of grave hopping, if one takes into account the enormous amount of admiration rather than curiosity that drives people from around the world to come and pay tribute to their fallen idols. It reminds me of the Poe Toaster, that mysterious person who appeared at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave for over seven decades on the writer’s birthday, raising a toast before vanishing. All he or she would leave behind, from the 1930s to the 1990s, was three roses and a bottle of cognac.
The fact that the Zentralfriedhof also offered visitors an audio guide (at approximately 7 Euros for a 2 to 4-hour tour) only proved that people like me were more the norm than the exception here. It’s also why Oscar Wilde’s tomb in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, was protected by a glass barrier in 2011 to protect it from thousands of visitors who, until then, had kissed it for years after applying lipstick to their mouths, leaving prints all over it. The barrier wasn’t in place when I visited, but I had no lipstick on me and chose, instead, to walk over to another famous grave a few metres away, that of the American singer-songwriter Jim Morrison. There used to be a bust of the singer (who died in Paris in 1971) adorning the grave at some point, but it was routinely defaced by vandals and eventually stolen. The only thing that covered the simple tomb as I stood before it were scraps of poetry, packets of cigarettes and a few bottles of whiskey, all placed there by fans.
I also stumbled upon poems at another grave, of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who lay at Paris’s other famous cemetery, Montparnasse. Why were these notes left here? Why did people fly across oceans in order to stand, if only for a few moments, besides these long dead writers, singers, actors and musicians? Why, if not to show, in their own clumsy way, that these lives had mattered to them, and to express grief the only way they knew how?
Not everyone finds death to be a dismal, macabre affair. For instance, it inspired 68-year old Mary Anne Noland from Richmond, Virginia. Her obituary, published in the local paper a day after she died, read: ‘Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday.’ It’s the sort of anecdote that would make graveyard tour operators — who exist, of course, and charge curious tourists a fair amount — extremely happy. In Paris, one guide reportedly plays songs by Edith Piaf at the famous singer’s grave, while another stands before Chopin’s resting place to point out that the composer was buried there without his heart. after insisting that the organ be posthumously removed and shipped to his hometown, Poland.
There were no famous folk interred at the Necropolis in Glasgow, a Victorian cemetery once described as “a city of the dead” on account of the 50,000 people buried there. It held the mortal remains of fallen World War soldiers, a man called Charles Tennant who discovered bleaching powder, and over 3,000 monuments to people who must once have been very important but now lay forgotten by history. The cemetery was closed a long time ago, but still attracted visitors, which is why one could book a walking tour of the 37-acre place for a small fee.
And then there was William Hazlitt, one of the finest essayists in the English language, who died in 1830 and now lay forever in the churchyard of St Anne’s in Soho, central London. His tombstone — supposedly destroyed in 1870 out of fears that his writings would generate social conflict, and renovated in 2003 — lay flat against the soil, looking up to blue English skies, surrounded by young students who slept on the grass alongside or bought picnic lunches to his otherwise notorious corner of London. If they knew who he was, they showed no interest.
I thought that was nice, the idea of the living lying alongside the dead, separating artificial barriers we put up between what we are and what we all to eventually become. After staring at the grave for a while, I walked on.
— First published in GQ, India, April 2017