World's most beautiful cemeteries... A collection from Smithsonian. I've visited several of these, and they are all beautiful places. But there's one I've visited that I thought was more beautiful than any in this collection: a tiny cemetery near the little town of Kasti, on the island of Saaremaa, in Estonia.
I don't have any photos of it, unfortunately. What made it so beautiful to me was the way that the locals had so carefully maintained this cemetery over several hundred years. The oldest gravestones I found dated to the 1600s; the newest ones were very recent. All were simple and plain – and all, even the oldest, had fresh flowers on them. The lawn and plants were immaculately maintained, and the surrounding and overhanging forest had irrigation ditches to keep the trees watered and healthy. The atmosphere was somber, dignified, and peaceful.
I have fond memories of something that happened there, as well. As I was walking around, a local family – husband, wife, two young kids – came in bearing flowers. The kids were happy and full of energy; they immediately went bounding off to play amongst the tombstones. The couple went over to a grave near one corner, cleared the older flowers away and set a new bouquet down. The husband took out some hand shears and started clipping the grass around the grave, and pulling a few weeds. The wife stood silently, crying a little. I felt like an intruder on this scene, and quietly walked out.
I started to get into my rental car when I saw the husband walking toward me with a friendly expression. He waved and greeted me, in Estonian, which I don't know a word of. I asked if he spoke English, and he replied that he did – but just a little. He said that he and his wife were afraid that they had intruded on my solitude, and that they didn't want me to think I had to leave because they had come in. We laughed together when I told him that I'd had the same feeling about them. He assumed I had a relative buried here, but I told him I was just sightseeing, and had been struck by the beauty of this little cemetery as I drove by. He dragged me back in to meet his wife, whom he said spoke perfect English.
Well, it wasn't so perfect :) But it was, truly, much better than his. Both of them were very warm and friendly to this strange American tourist (this was back in 1993 or 1994, and foreign tourists were very unusual at that time). She told me that the grave they were visiting was for her father, who had died about 15 years earlier. What made her sad today was that he had not lived to see the end of the Soviet occupation (1991). That would have filled him with joy, she said, and that's easy to believe. The three of us talked for about an hour – me with lots of questions about what it was like to live on Saaremaa, them with lots of questions about America. Like so many other Estonians back then, when they heard I lived in California, they assumed I was on a first name basis with every Hollywood star :)
Our conversation was intermittently in English, and intermittently in Estonian as the husband and wife came up with things they wanted to ask, or talked about something I'd said. After one of these Estonian interludes, the woman asked me if I'd join them for dinner, at their home, just a couple of miles away. I jumped on that opportunity!
The conversation continued before, during, and after the dinner. The kids about 12 or 13 years old) joined in, too, with lots of questions of their own. The dinner itself was simple fare: a little pea-and-carrot salad, something I'd call roast pork, with a savory sauce, and boiled potatoes with (the inevitable) dill. There was a slightly sweet cold soup, tomato-based, again with dill. There was beer to drink (including for the kids), a local brew. I'm not a beer fan, and I didn't particularly like theirs, but I drank it anyway :). It was well after dark when I finally took my leave, with lots of smiles, good cheer, and waves goodbye. I had a standing invitation to visit the next time I came to Saaremaa.
A couple of years later, I did just that – but when I drove up to the house and knocked on the door, an unfamiliar face greeted me. When we found someone who spoke English, I found out that the family I knew had moved away – the husband had found good work in Poland, and they all moved there. I think of them, now and then, and hope that they're doing well. The Smithsonian cemetery story brought them to mind once again...