When I first heard that some people would visit the Stanley Military Cemetery as a tourist attraction, I found it incredible. Why would anyone favour a hill dotted by slabs of headstones over the nearby St. Stephen’s Beach?
I know from childhood experience: a visit to one’s ancestors is but an impassive task. You go to a designated cemetery at a specific time. Jam-packed with burnt offerings and headstones upon headstones, it’s hardly a place that encourages prolonged visits for smoke-stung eyes. But I did not know then that Hong Kong cemeteries of the early colonial era, like Stanley, were modelled on 19th-century European garden cemetery. Albeit compact, the cemetery in Stanley is equipped with landscaping and benches like that of a public park – offering respite too good to be true after a long flight of steps.
This fine line between death and public space was the reason I began to enjoy walks in cemeteries. Sometimes I go there to pay tribute to a beloved writer, other times to learn about history. But, really, you don’t need a reason to be in a cemetery. More often than not, you chance upon one without trying. Camouflaged amidst residential buildings, urban cemeteries are seen as a means to a destination more than a place in its own right. Strolling under the trees, sharing the road with a few cyclists, there is no telling where the sidewalk ends and where the final resting place begins.
There are, of course, differences between a cemetery and a park. I don’t suppose anyone would play football in a cemetery, though people might jog in muted gasps. I used to think that those who disliked the bustle and activity in parks might prefer the peace of cemeteries, or rather something ineffable that transcended peace itself. Then I visited the much anticipated Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm – the only cemetery in the world named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only then did I realise the passionate beating of my heart.
Complete with chapels, integrated sculptures, a large pond and a meditation hill, Skogskyrkogården boasts an extraordinary environment of tranquil beauty. What moved me, though, was its pastoral landscape, which evoked a more primitive imagery. Away from the ornamental colonnaded entrance and chapels, one arrived at a footpath through a grove of tall pine trees. The pine forest had been there long before the gravestones materialised, as ad hoc as they might be. Death did not obsess me, but it was clear to me that the co-existence of all of this – grass, soil, stones, woods – and me and death – was as stately as it was manifest.
I picked up a fallen pinecone. I wasn’t sure why the fruit of a pine tree should be woody and geometric – like a miniature tree. It was said that cones were open when dry and closed when wet, to protect the seeds until dissemination in relatively dry weather. The scent of pine in the air was stronger than any perfume. It belonged to no one – neither the living nor the dead. There were no beginnings or ends. Things existed here, in a state of suspension – of epoché.