Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Those Who Went Before . . .

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On this Hallow Eve which passes into the Day of All Saints, what better time to give thought to those who went before ? I often step into graveyards, and ponder a moment the stories told there, on stones, in sculpture, in photographs. I fear that to many of these tombs no visitor comes, to forgotten graves, yet what point a cemetery if no one comes to remember ? Thus I serve as a benevolent mourner, a recipient for memories, a holder of spiritual hands. And if I take a photograph away, it is only in hoping that these silent resting places will not be forgotten, as even graveyards disappear, stone crumbles, sculptures rust, photos fade, and dust returns to dust.
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World War One remains visible in graves and monuments all over France, even now, nearly 100 years later. On this first cross, it is marked 1914-1918, and at the base of the cross, "Pro Patria".
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Will anyone remember the name of Maurice Bourdon, aged 22, once this plaque has rusted away entirely ?
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A chapel and lines of white crosses mark the burials from a battle near here in the summer of 1918, in the last big German advance before they were pushed back and the war ended a few short months later.
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Two brothers remembered, but not buried, side by side.
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Antonin and Egalité Thiebaut. Antonin received a head wound at Mouilly in the Calonne Trench near Verdun on 27 October, 1914. He died from complications four years later on 31 October, 1918. Egalité was killed in February 1916 on the front at Verdun in the Bois des Caures, buried on hill 344 (another dreadful name from Verdun) his grave disappeared during the battles and heavy shelling of the entire area which followed throughout 1916.
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Marcellin Ducroq was killed in Germany in March 1945. That Second war ended not long after.
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Charles Prouillet fathered two children with Lucie Depuille, a girl, Marie-Jeanne who lived from 1925 to 1926, and a boy, Jean-Marie, who lived from 1926 to 1927. Charles died in 1931 at the age of 29, while Lucie lived on another 50 years. One can only wonder what they went through. Life is not easy for anyone, but some seem to get more than their fair share of tragedy.
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There was no name and no dates on this young woman's grave. Again one can only wonder in silence. Who was she ? Why did she have to leave so young ? What happened ?
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Soldiers, so many soldiers. When will we ever learn ?
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I have never before seen a crucifixion figure attached to a cross with a screw through the chest.
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And this one was rusting away patiently.
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31 comments:

Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... said...

Dear Owen-- What a moving, special post. Like you, I like spending time reading inscriptions in cemeteries and trying to imagine what people's lives must have been. I heard it said that there is a "war memorial" in every French village, town, or city. One of the reasons is that many bodies could never be returned to their families during WW1. The French government built memorials so families would have a place to remember and grieve. How terribly sad is that? After traveling through France for years, I believe that statement is correct. The worst part is driving through a village, taking a closer look at a war memorial and realizing that out of 10 names, at least 4 were from the same family. "When will they ever learn?"-- indeed. Great job, friend. Veronique

Steve said...

What point cemetaries if no one comes to remember? It's a poignant question. Cemetaries are not so much places for the dead but places for the living...

Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden said...

What a thoughtful reflective post to mark this time. I do agree with Steve about cemetries being places for the living. I no longer make an anniversary pilgrimmage to my father's grave (which is not far away) as the need has slipped away, although memories of him are rich and fond as I work in this garden, which was his once.
But back to your photos: those bronze likeness of les freres Thiebaut are remarkable sculptures. Is that a common type of grave marker in France? The stories you shared with us are all so sad aren't they.

mythopolis said...

I feel I share in your philosophy about cemeteries. Our own lives are built upon the bones of others.

One photo confirms what I have felt all along...Jesus got screwed. But it seems a long standing tradition of ours to kill anybody who is too conspicuously great for their time. The nail that lifts its head gets hammered down. (Some old proverb)

Lydia said...

Once again, Owen, your photographs and sweet words of cemeteries have moved me to tears. I really treasure the special touches of sentimental humanity you give to these posts. I have always felt a sense of awe and gratitude in graveyards, and can only imagine how powerful it would be to visit those in Europe. And Gettysburg...I want to see it one day. My husband and I even walked all around the graveyard at Croton-on-Hudson when we honeymooned in New York!

My mother grew up knowing that she had lost her cousin in WWI in France.

Am sure you know the wonderful song "The Green Fields of France," --my favorite version is John McDermott's here. I have his Danny Boy Collection with this on it and it, like this post, bring me to tears.

Alistair said...

Poor Marcellin - dead on my birthday years before I was born.

As always - marvellous, thought provoking images taken with care and empathy.

Cheers.

Céline said...

Quand les hommes apprendront-ils ? J'ai bien peur que la réponse soit "Jamais", parce que les hommes ont peur, peur d'être plus faibles que le voisin... alors ils jouent à être plus forts. Instinct de survie qui conduit à l'incompréhension, au racisme et parfois à la guerre. Heureusement, certain(e)s vont au-delà de leurs peurs et osent se parler, essayent de se comprendre pour aller plus loin, ensembles.
Belle journée Owen

Clytie said...

How do I put into words how I feel? Your words and pictures brought tears to my eyes ... made me stop and think. And wonder.

louciao said...

And where are the memorials for Conscientious Objectors? Would a family proudly mark their loved one's gravestone with that information or would it need be kept a skeletion in the closet.

http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/cos/index.html

Indeed, cemeteries are for the living; the dead have definitely moved on. If not, they are ghosts wandering lost in a no-man's land. I agree, it is fascinating to read the inscriptions on old graves and even more fascinating if there are pictorial remembrances or objects placed there whose significance may well be lost to us (though Jesus with a big rusty screw through the middle of his chest is not so subtle).
Much to ruminate on: So many stories, lost and forgotten, barely imagined. We all want to feel that our lives have mattered in some way, don't we.
Sometimes I feel that humans are merely viruses upon the Earth, but then, in the next moment I am "dazzled by the beauty of it all".

James said...

Wonderful post Owen! Have you ever considered making a cemetery photo book?

Scott said...

I do love grave and cemetery shots. You did wonderful with these.

Sorry I've been gone, my blog disappeared while I was in New England. I've put up a new one here to keep up for now.

Stickup Artist said...

I am amazed at how many graves have portraits. I have not seen that tradition here. Your post, words and images, brought tears to my eyes and deep thoughts. I somehow need to hold on to the idea that this fleeting, often tragic, absurd, and too short life, is not "it."

The Sagittarian said...

So beautiful....I haven't been cemetery visiting for awhile as the headstones have moved and some have fallen flat but I hope to do so again. (Oh and yes, that soldier statue that you have asked about - he is still standing, not a mark on him at all!)

Springman said...

Mr. Owen,
Pete Seeger's words where never more appropriately remembered than with your tribute. Thanks for stirring that wonderful song in my brain, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" They don't write 'em like that anymore. Remember the last verse?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long, long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Enough said.

Owen said...

Dear Véronique,
I think you must be right, it would seem that every village, town, city in France has a WWI memorial, of surprisingly different styles and sizes and artwork... but always the names are the most sobering part. Not only one family that lost two or three or four siblings, but often in the same village there were several families which lost more than one son to the madness of the trenches. The 11th of November is coming up soon, graveyards across France will be covered in flowers.
Many thanks...

Owen said...

Steve, perhaps the living shouldn't spend too much time in cemeteries, as there will be time enough later, but it doesn't hurt to contemplate eternity every now and then...

Owen said...

Dear LadyM,
The sculptures of the two brothers were a very unusual form of tombstone art, which is why they caught my eye and some photos ensued. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like that, with the two handsome portraits side by side, and the stories carved in stone, just below. The two of them done in around Verdun. Very sad indeed... so many grieving families in Europe in those years, not to mention those who came from much farther away, like the states, or the Anzac troops. I suppose we all have come to terms sooner or later with how much or how little we wish to allow into our lives from those who have passed on and the places where they lie. I know it is a subject that makes some people uncomfortable, some do not care to look too closely at such things. For me I find it gives a sense of balance, as we walk the tightrope toward eternity.

Be well...

Owen said...

Dear Mythman,
You hit the nail on the head, as it were... I wondered if anyone would see that screw through a metal chest as symbolic. I was going to say something to the effect of not remembering anything in the story about Jesus being screwed to the cross, just nails, a crown of thorns, and a spear between the ribs; but nothing about a big screw right through the solar plexus... yep, like most people too good for their own good over the centuries, he definitely got screwed. He was a stranger in a strange land if there ever was one. I've seen a lot of crucifix renderings over the years, but this was the first I'd ever seen with a screw in it. It caught my eye as an oddity...

Owen said...

Hi Lydia, Many thanks for the link, yes I'm familiar with Willie McBride and the Fields of France, but hadn't heard it for a while. So many fine lines in it.

Are you familiar with the Robert Service poems which Country Joe set to music ? The Twins, The Man From Athabaska, The Munitions Makers, and perhaps most powerful of all : The March of the Dead.

Cemeteries are peaceful places, I always enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation in them, and almost never leave without at least one photograph of a touching story.

Take care...

Owen said...

Alistair, a simple thank you. Made me think of the line of the song "Cathedral" by Crosby Stills and Nash : "and the day he died it was a birthday and I noticed it was mine..." Great song...

Owen said...

Bonsoir Céline,
Espérons que l'homme comprendra un jour, avant qu'il ne soit trop tard... et qu'il y aura de plus en plus qui souhaiteraient aller plus loin, bcp plus loin, et non pas rester patauger dans le petrin de l'histoire.

Bon weekend à toi...

Owen said...

Dear Clytie, tears and thoughts... I could not ask for more...

Owen said...

Hi Lynne,
I read with great interest some of the stories on the Conscientious Objectors page. They certainly had amazing courage to buck the system at that time, when it was hugely unpopular to do so. Especially when considering that in many instances soldiers who disobeyed orders or who intentionally wounded themselves were shot. No, I couldn't say if there are any graves marked proudly as being that of an objector. If there are, I haven't come across one yet.

Although, I have found the grave of the Unknown Deserter... I even have a picture of it in a pamphlet from the museum it is in : Le Musée de l'Insolite, which is a marvellously absurd place in south central France, near the town of Cahors. If you are ever in that neck of the proverbial woods, don't miss it.

Will have to keep searching for the grave of a CO. As amazing as it may seem, I haven't yet visited all the cemeteries in France, and have barely scratched the surface in England.

Ah, viruses versus dazzling beauty, we live in a world of terrible extremes, the trick is to find one's own way through the labyrinth, and as Mr Morrison put it so well : No one here gets out alive...

Owen said...

Hey James, I'd love to do that... just need to find an editor who would like to do the project... but that's why this blog is here, right, sooner or later someone with the wherewithal is going to come knocking, right ? Gotta believe...
:-)

Owen said...

Hi Scott, many thanks indeed; and I hope the whale which swallowed your other blog like Jonas will soon spit it back up again into the morning sun...

Owen said...

Ah Stickup... the photographic portraits on graves in France are one reason I keep going back and keep looking, so often these faces from the past just speak volumes and volumes of poetry to me. And I guess you've put your finger on the toughest question of all, the one that has most everyone guessing, and a few too many claiming to know the truth about the matter : is this "it", or is there something else ? I couldn't begin to say...

Personally I'm hoping there will be a chance to go see what life looks like on some other planets in other galaxies, where maybe somewhere things aren't quite so warlike, and maybe a little less heartless... a little kinder...

Owen said...

Dear Saj, I'm glad to hear Sgt Nicholas wasn't bowled over by falling bricks or anything, and hope that your house re-building project is coming along in great strides, so that you'll one day before too long be able to get back to some semblance of normal... Good to see you out and about though, and hope to see a tipple soon, the blogosphere has been a spot dry these last weeks. If you need a hand uprighting any of those fallen stones, just give a call, I'm sure between the three of us sibs we could stand a few back up. At worst we could hire a backhoe to help us...

Owen said...

Good Sir Springman,
The songs from our childhoods, from mine anyway, when the Viet Nam War was raging, names like Hué and Saigon and My Lai and Da Nang filled the press, who could forget songs like that, when heard in the context they were being sung in. Just saw the film "Bobby" for the first time recently, about Robert Kennedy's assassination, which summarized a great deal from the period. Seems we haven't come too far since then. For sure, when will they ever learn ? Before the graveyards are all gone to flowers ?

Lydia said...

Owen, am not familiar with those particular Service poems. I promise to check on them. .....I was thinking about this post's images the other night just before sleep and wondered if you might consider adding a "Share This" to the end of your posts. I would quickly click to share on Facebook...

Nathalie said...

Maintenant que j'ai un fils de 24 ans j'ai mal au coeur quand je lis sur une croix "mort à 22 ans". Beaucoup de tes images sont poignantes, toutes sont émouvantes.

Nathalie said...

Ah ce Christ avec un gros clou au milieu du thorax. C'est affreux !