Cemeteries, especially old ones, speak volumes. The epitaphs engraved on the headstones, tombs, and mausoleums tell stories about the living. The materials and style of the contruction, the location and orientation of the graves themselves, and the way in which they are cared for, give insights into people’s priorities. The study of burial rituals is one of the mainstays of cultural anthropology, illuminating, as it does, so much about the values and organisation of a society. Photographically, graveyards are a goldmine: rich with textured surfaces and subtle tones.
Chinese graveyards can be particularly interesting. Traditionally, they were built into hills – the higher the better. Funeral observances were elaborate and bodies were buried intact, with the food, money and goods that they might need in the afterlife. During the annual Qingming Festival, the tributes were paid to the dead, and the graves were swept and cleaned. With the pressure of population and scares resources, the idea of cremation was promoted, so that today many Chinese graveyards include provisions for urns.
In many places, however, frugality is ignored. Where money and space permit, urns are housed in mausoleums as large and ostentatious as ever, as is ‘befitting’ the stature of the ancestor.
The spiritual importance of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture makes the old Chinese cemetery on Silom Road in Bangkok even more surprising. Sinking into a watery grave itself, overrun by pumkin vines, weeds and mangy dogs, it is hard to imagine the ancestors feeling at home there.
I had wanted to visit this place years ago when a photographer friend of mine posted the results of one of his visits on his Flickr site, but I never quite made it. It took the suggestion of visiting Manhattan-based artist, Jenny Krasner to pique my interest once again.
Truthfully, had I been alone, I would have never ventured past the gate! Beyond the walled car park, a large sala (pavilion) gave shade and shelter to a collection of rough-looking Thais and assorted car parts and bits of machinery. We greeted the men cautiously in our best Thai, and when they ignored us, we assumed it was safe to proceed. The graves themselves are surrounded by water, and we had to climb over stones, broken glass and rusting cans to get to the pathway between the headstones. I was wishing I was wearing closed shoes, trying to remember when I had last had a tetanus shot and wondering what the place would look like in rainy season (we were there early summer) while picking my way gingerly over the uneven ground with my camera gear. The pack of resident soi dogs (we counted 20), somnolent from the late morning heat, growled and barked whenever we moved too fast or got too close.
People actually live on site, and there was evidence of children on the cluttered back porch that overlooked the flooded grounds and the graves. If these people are caretakers, it is not clear what they have achieved against the decay of a cemetery which is not actually as old as it looks.
I don’t get the feeling too many spirits stay there anymore.
So – keep your eyes open this Hallowe’en! They will probably be looking for a better-kept home.