I had never spent much time in cemeteries until I moved to tiny Châteauneuf in Provençe. The small hilltop village had two cemeteries, an old and a new one, situated on its flanks.
The new cemetery dating to the 17th century was located outside the original wall that had once fortified the village against Saracens. This cemetery was terraced, and contained white, gray, and rose marble and granite mausoleums as well as more plain tombstones. On reading the names on the tombs, it was easy to see several generations of a family buried in the same spot.
The cemetery was shady with broad, worn, stone steps running down its middle, descending the steep hillside, and ending right behind the main grocery store. Everyone used the path as a short cut to the store, otherwise it would have been a couple of extra kilometers to get there. For most of the year everyone hurried through – children would run up and down with popsicles dripping down their shirts, and older women would tramp up the 45-degree steps with bags laden with fresh fish, produce, and a baguette tucked under their arm for the evening meal.
However on All Saints Day or Toussaint, the first day of November, the local flower lady would set up a small stand at the bottom entrance to the cemetery with bunches of mums in shades of burgundy, russet, pink, and yellow. In France, it’s traditional to place mums on tombstones as offerings to the dead, but mums are never ever given to a living person.
But it was the old cemetery, within the 12th century ramparts, that drew me. That one sat at the same height as the village, but it overhung the road winding down the hill. Three gigantic sycamore trees, looking like they had been there for centuries and resembling lonely sentinels under the Provençal sky, dominated the old cemetery. The tombstones had been removed or turned to dust, and the ground was covered with fine grass and wildflowers. In a corner was a bench to sit upon and gaze out at the surrounding countryside far below.
My old Scottie dog and I used to visit on our daily walk, and on winter afternoons I would often sit in that high lonely place where few others ever visited, to watch the storm clouds come in over the Mediterranean. During summer, giant thunderheads would come rolling up over the mountains and down the alpine valley that lay due north of the village. At night the stars would dance and swirl in the clear heavens above, an entire river of stars extending down the valley back to the Alps, while on the plain below hundreds of lights twinkled as people went about their nightly rituals. Looking further afield, the coast was a glittering diamond necklace of town after town lit up, all the way from Nice to Cannes.
I always felt that angels guarded that quiet, holy place where souls had once been laid to rest, and imagined they had glimpsed heaven, even as I had.