As a child, I was told never to step on a grave because I may wake up the dead.
But here, I was trudging through a cemetery on a crisp, wintry day and actually enjoying the experience. Most of the cemeteries I had visited in the past—in my home town Chennai and around the world—had been Dickensian, morbid or downright boring. But for the first time, instead of ghoulish, it turns out to be a restful, peaceful and emotional experience.
I am at the Glasnevin Cemetery in the heart of Dublin, Ireland’s most famous cemetery, with stunning architecture and beautiful landscaping. It’s a cemetery that celebrates eternal sleep and remembrance with so much élan that even a film called One Million Dubliners has been made about it.
Though it is a major tourist attraction, it has not been on my radar because a visit to a graveyard has never been my idea of a perfect day out. But a local friend recommends it, saying that it’s a place he goes to when he needs to think or slow down.
As I walk into the gates of the cemetery located next to the National Botanical Gardens on Finglas Road, and sprawling over approximately 124 acres with the sun shining high over the towering conifers, the first thing I notice are the high walls and towers. Our guide Patrick, explains they were built in order to guard against the grave robbers of yore. This was a grisly trade in the 19th century when anatomy schools and surgeons needed bodies to dissect but their supply of bodies was limited to criminals who were hanged.
The grave robbers would operate in the dead of the night forcing the coffin open and making off with the body in a sack. It was only after the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed that anatomists could get cadavers legally and grave robbing quickly declined.
Long ago, the Irish Catholics had to bury their dead in Protestant churchyards, or graveyards, and were only allowed to conduct a limited service due to the strict penal laws of the eighteenth century.
It was Daniel O’Connell, an Irish political leader, who fought for a decent burial for people of all denominations, and Glasnevin Cemetery was marked out as Ireland’s first non-denominational graveyard, a place where Catholics and Protestants could bury their dead.
Since 1828, more than 1.5 million people have been interred in Glasnevin. According to his dying wish, Connell’s heart was buried in Rome and the remainder of his body at Glasnevin, in a mausoleum beneath a round tower. His coffin is in a central chamber whose walls are decorated with Celtic murals.
I gaze at simple slabs of weathered stone and imposing monuments; every marker in Glasnevin hides a story, a story of a life lived. What stands out is how it’s been transformed into a visitor friendly place.
As many as 1,000 schoolchildren come through its iron gates each week, to relive the momentous events that helped to shape Ireland and hundreds of tourists from across the world sign up for walks, with historians and guides.
Few cemeteries carry as much historical relevance as this famous cemetery. “The history of Dublin is mapped out through the tales of the souls resting across these 120 acres," explains our guide. From Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons, to Maud Gonne, the famous poet W.B. Yeats’s muse, all lie buried here.
Famous revolutionary leaders like Michael Collins who masterminded the war against the British and Arthur Griffith, who led the political party Sinn Féin, are buried here. There is also the grave of the man who wrote the Irish national anthem, Peadar Ó Cearnaigh.
Michael Collins’s grave, overflowing with flowers, is perhaps the most popular. Arthur Griffith’s headstone acknowledges all the roles he played: author, editor and founder.
If you love literature, you can take a Joycean Tour, as this graveyard is referenced in many of James Joyce’s works, and visit the Joyce family grave. For military history buffs, there are countless graves of famous soldiers as well as forgotten heroes.
You can even do an architectural tour discovering the styles and art of headstones and memorials. If you intend tracing your Irish family history, the Glasnevin cemetery also possesses over 1.5 million Irish genealogy records from 1832 to the present.
I walk through this forest of statues, monuments, Celtic crosses and grave stones, admiring the love that was engraved into every single one of them. Hundreds of grey squirrels scamper around the trees and bushes. The chirps and warble of blackbirds, skylarks, robins and wrens provide the soothing soundtrack.
This was designed to be a garden cemetery on the lines of Pere Lachaise, which opened in Paris in 1804. I amble down winding paths that have been created of sufficient width to allow carriages and hearses through.
Our guide shows us several graves of people who were bitter enemies in life and even killed each other. But now they are buried within close proximity in the same graveyard. Rebels and rogues to heroes lie buried in the same graveyard. No wonder they say death is a great equalizer.
He also quips that the headstones are also indicators of economic prosperity—in times of recession people had ordinary slabs while in good times, they had ornate ones.
Dotting the sides are ornamental trees like cedar, giant red Sequoia, oak and stately beech trees. I sit under a large yew tree, deep in thought about life and death. It is strangely cathartic being here—I muse on the loss of my father 30 years ago and wish that he was in such a place where I could re-connect with him.
I notice the recurring motifs on the graves like the distinctive Celtic cross; some grave stones have photos of the dead, others have small angels, crucifixes and beads. Some graves are well tended and cared for; others look forlorn and abandoned with rusty railings. I see a group of enthusiastic youngsters on a field trip with their teacher—what a way to teach the young about history and acquaint them with death at the same time.
After the tour, I wander on my own with the help of a guide book and discover that distinct burial areas have been created for groups of people—the Jesuits and Friars in one section, those who died in achieving the country’s freedom in another and so on. Heart-warming is a “paupers" plot, run by a charitable organization, which ensures that older people who die with no family or friend to claim them are buried with dignity, giving them a full funeral, headstone and flowers.
The headstones, of course, have been ravaged by the passage of time—by the wind and water and elements over the years. When I see a well-tended grave, I wonder, is it a mother who still visits this grave, is it a cousin or a sibling?
Victims of a massive outbreak (of Typhoid) in Dublin in 1849 were buried here in the hope of containing the disease. But unknown to the authorities, the streams below the graves flowed into the river and were used for washing and for bathing. The river water transmitted the disease from this mass grave.
The most poignant experience for me is walking through the Holy Angels plot which has over fifty thousand infants—in those days, few graveyards allowed stillborn and miscarried babies to be buried in consecrated ground, as they were not baptized. Glasnevin was one of the few cemeteries that allowed stillborn babies to be buried.
I even find an Indian connection. There is the grave of Ankur Seth, who was on the Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to Mumbai when it exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Sea. His immediate family was killed and his aunt decided to bury him on Irish soil.
There are quirky stories too, such as the lure of Collins, which had women laying flowers at his grave particularly after the film came out. Liam Neeson starred as Michael Collins in the 1996 biopic based on his life which became the highest grossing film in Ireland.
There is enough material for a thriller too—there is the grave of Major Hermann Goertz, a German spy who parachuted into Ireland, and when they decided to hand him back to Germany, he swallowed a cyanide pill and died.
The futuristic cemetery museum, which appropriately lies buried in the basement, gives you the history of Glasnevin Cemetery using interactive and audiovisual displays. It’s a fascinating window into the history of burial practices, genealogy, grave robbery, and religious beliefs. I love the interactive headstones that lend a fascinating insight into the social history of Dublin—you can even eavesdrop on the grave-diggers’ conversations.
From the Prospect Gallery, we get a panoramic vista of the sprawling cemetery. “In 2006, the museum was built and efforts were made to restore the graves and bring Glasnevin Cemetery back to its former glory," explains our guide.
“One of the most expensive plots available in Glasnevin today is near the chapel of the cemetery and costs as much as €32,000," he says with a laugh. “It’s expensive to even die these days."