Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Being There

I took the above picture a little over a month ago. It was my entry for ‘monochrome’ week in the 52 photo project I’m doing this year. When I studied the photo I knew I would write a blog post about it – but just didn’t know exactly what that would be. Initially, I thought it might simply be a description of where the photo was taken. However, I’ve been led in a slightly more reflective direction. But I’ll start anyway with some background to the location.

Close to where I live, in a disused landscaped quarry, lies the German War Cemetery in Glencree. Dedicated on July 9th 1961, the graveyard is located close to the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. One hundred and thirty four persons are buried here including Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Many are known, some are unknown. These were originally in 59 Graves across 15 counties of Ireland until being moved to Glencree. Most of the graves belong to flyers of the Second World War who were washed up on our shores. Included also are the victims of the Arandora Star, German civilian detainees sunk by U-Boat in 1940 off Tory Island.

Despite living close by all my life, I first visited this cemetery less than 2 months ago. I found it to be a place of great beauty and tranquillity. In the years since its dedication it has become, as well as a memorial for Germany’s war dead and a focal point for the Irish - German community, a place also for peace and reflection to a much wider society.

While there, I was struck by several thoughts related to death and how we mark it. Firstly, I was reminded that in violent conflict there is loss of life on all sides. Through the ages, countless millions – human beings, flesh and blood – have made the ultimate sacrifice in times of war. The unfortunate souls buried in this beautiful and tranquil place most likely died young, died violently, died a long way from home and therefore died lonely deaths away from their loved ones. The reverse side, of course, is that for each of these deceased, there were family and friends who perhaps didn’t know until well after the fact that their loved one had gone. For them, no chance for a last goodbye, no ritual of celebration or thanksgiving for the life that was before a final farewell at the graveside at the time of laying to rest. Not how most of us would wish to depart this life.

Secondly, I was reminded of a remark a friend of mine had recently made in relation to the Catholic Church that, despite its many faults and failings, it does death well. I would fully subscribe to that view. The ritual surrounding death in the Catholic Church seems to me, in most cases, to strike a perfect balance between mourning the passing, celebrating the life and at the same time extending compassion and support to the family and friends.

In more general terms, one could say that the Irish do death well. Our culture is one of strong community presence and support to friends, neighbours and colleagues who are grieving the loss of a loved one. In this aspect, I recall many years ago when I joined the workforce I had the privilege to work with an extraordinary colleague who, for want of a better way of putting it, just seemed always to do the right thing. One of his strongest principles was that of lending support to work colleagues who had lost a close family member. In this, he led by example. I don’t recall any occasion where he prioritised a work situation over making the time to pay his respects at a removal or a funeral Mass when a colleague had lost a parent or a partner.

Whenever I attend a funeral, and unfortunately I had the opportunity to do so twice in the past week, I often think back to the example set by my erstwhile work colleague. It reminds me not to underestimate the importance of supporting those we know who are grieving – and it can be as simple as a handshake, a hug or mere presence – being there.


  1. hi john
    this is a great post. I have passed the graveyard you write about but have never visited. I must do that some day.
    I so agree with you about how we in Ireland do death... I think we do it very well and I also agree that supporting friends / colleagues etc by attending removals or funerals of their loved ones is a beautiful tradition we have in Ireland and long may it continue.

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful photo and your thoughts

  2. The beautiful photo paints a thousand words - but your accompanying words are certainly very apt.

    I love the television programme 'One Born Every Minute' - childbirth never fails to fascinate me - and in a recent episode a young man of 20 was hoping to be there for the birth of his first child. Thankfully his girlfriend did manage to deliver the baby 'just in time' - because the young lad was about to start a six-month tour of Afghanistan the next day. Reminded me of how life can be very fragile.

    I'm not sure there's ever a totally 'just' war. Were those young Germans any more evil than their French or British counterparts? So often, it's the powerful who call the shots, but the poor and powerless who become cannon fodder.

    On a happier note, I hope your photo encourages people to take time to notice the beauty all around us. We can learn so much from nature.