"Donde esta cementerio?"
I had forgotten the "el" in front of the noun, but the shopkeeper in San Pedro, a small town in Chile's Atacama Desert, understood I was looking for the local cemetery, and he gave me detailed directions. I caught only a few of the words he was saying, but I got what I needed from his hand gestures: Left, right, left.
Around the world, there are famous cemeteries on tourist itineraries, from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans to Pere Lachaise in Paris and the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor.
I've visited these and other well-known burial grounds, but I have also (ungrammatically) asked for the directions to local cemeteries in nondescript towns in dozens of countries. I don't have a death obsession; on the contrary, I find that cemeteries simply present the fastest route and lowest barrier to penetrating at least one aspect of a foreign culture.
And language is never a problem in a cemetery.
Occasionally cemeteries are surprisingly lively. In both North and South Korea, I saw families eating graveside picnics on cemetery visits to honor their ancestors. But in most cases, graveyards quietly tell stories about the lives of local people. A small cemetery on Oahu's North Shore included headstones laden with untidy shrines that, through faded photos and iconic tokens, gave poignant testimony about people who were passionate about surfing, their families and friends.
I saw one of the most fascinating displays of European folk art in the town cemetery of Sapanta, Romania. An illustration of the dead was carved and painted on wooden grave markers showing what the deceased had done in life. (If they had died a violent death, it was depicted on the reverse side.)
Elaborate and beautiful roadside shrines are found in some regions of Ethiopia; in the Jewish Ghetto Cemetery in Prague, bodies are buried 12 deep, and wall-to-wall tombstones jut out of the ground from every angle, testifying to the confined and restricted conditions ghetto residents were subjected to in life.
The cemetery in San Pedro that I visited 10 days ago was dominated by simple crosses, some adorned with an oval of white plastic flowers. One sensed a community where religion was central and the vast majority of inhabitants were of modest means, but where a wealthy few build dominating structures and statues. A handful were so poor that their graves were marked with a cross made of scrap wood.
It was not, as these things go, an especially interesting graveyard. But it seemed to reveal more of traditional local culture than did the craft stalls, outfitter shops and tourist restaurants that characterized San Pedro's main street.
Reflected in death, I felt I caught a glimpse of the town that was hidden among the living.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.