This article was written by Ng Siew Cheng, my Malaysian friend, whom I met in 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. She is a Lecturer for Tourism and Business Events at a University and also a Tour Planner in KL. She also has a passion for sightseeing cemeteries (not only) and she came out with the idea of sharing this story after reading The Merry Cemetery from Romania
Rain drops are cascading on the train’s window, while the train slowly approaches the border with Croatia. Seconds after the train stops, an immigration officer walks in the compartment and starts checking passports. I hand him my passport, as he opens his booklet- there is where he, probably, keeps a list of nationalities that are required visas. Although I’m pretty nervous, I’m sure I am not amongst those nationalities. After a couple of minutes, he says: ‘Malaysia…., yes, OK” and returns me my documents with a relaxed smile on his face.
The train enters the main station in Zagreb. There, my couch surfer host, Zvonimir, a guy I’ve never actually met before, will meet me.
The trip to Zagreb was kind of a last minute decision. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, travel alone for a change. It was my first time doing that in Europe, far away from my home, in a place I knew nothing about.
I step out of the train and see Zvonimir coming towards me, holding a big umbrella in his hand. He greets me with a huge hug and offers to carry my luggage to the car.
‘So, what are you doing in Zagreb?’ he asks me.
‘Honestly, I am curious to visit the most beautiful cemetery in your city’ I say.
This caused a shocked look on his face that lasted for a couple of moments.
‘Are you sure you want to visit a cemetery?” he wanted to make sure.
‘Yes, I am serious, I read about the cemetery and I want to have a look.’
He is silent, again. I wasn’t sure if what I’ve just asked was wrong or culturally insensitive. ’We’ll see’, I thought. He changed the topic and continued to talk about my upcoming trip to Budapest.
Next morning, we had a delicious Croatian breakfast, courtesy of my new found friend’s parents, who cared for me the previous evening as well: prepared a comfortable bed, gave me a big bowl of lemon with honey, just in case I was catching a cold.
‘So, are you ready for sightseeing in Zagreb?’ Zvonomir asked me, while preparing his car for today’s trip.
I assumed he will be showing me landmarks around Zagreb, but, to my surprise, our first stop was Mirogoj Cemetery.
“This is what you wanted to see…, here we go”, he says. I was grateful for that and checked one of the items on my “to visit list”. Perhaps he thinks I’m a bit crazy. A cemetery is not on top of most travelers’ visiting lists.
I am not able to describe my first impression of Mirogoj. It is nothing like a cemetery back home, in Malaysia. It is nothing like any cemetery I’ve ever seen anyway: a great number of beautiful sculptures, arcades and pavilions, surrounded by gardens and beautiful landscapes. Every single graveyard is a unique piece of art.
While strolling around the cemetery, the atmosphere is peaceful. Zvonimir told me that many politicians are buried here. He also told me he had to attend a relative’s funeral here, just a week ago.
Now I could understand the look on his face when I asked him to bring me here: of course, there isn’t anything positive about a trip to the cemetery, for most people. I felt sorry for dragging him all the way here. He told me I was the first guest to have such an unusual request, and that is why he felt a bit awkward.
I recalled my last visit to a Chinese cemetery and started sharing my traditions with Zvonimir:” in Malaysia, cemeteries look more like deserts. Portraits around these cemeteries give you an unsettling feeling, it is as someone is staring at you all the time. Every grave displays a photo of the deceased, and people in those photos always look so serious. It’s definitely not a place where one would feel at ease and want to spend time. But this European cemetery in Croatia had a different feeling to it.
As for Chinese people, they normally visit the cemetery for ‘Qing Ming Festival’, the ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. During this festival, every year, on the 4th or 5th of April, we visit cemeteries to pray to our ancestors. The Chinese community in Malaysia takes this festival seriously, as an opportunity to uphold traditions: we pay respect and remember those who have passed on in our families, by visiting their graves. On that day, it feels more like a family reunion; we prepare our departed relatives’ favorite food and bring it over to the burial ground.
We normally start by cleaning the ground: it almost feels like “spring cleaning”; followed by prayers and burning candles and joss sticks. In all this time, our ancestors enjoy their food, along with the company of their families and ‘respected guests’. We then check if our ancestors have finished their meals by tossing two coins on the graves: if both coins land on the same side, we’ll have to give them another 10 to 20 minutes to finish their meal.
Finally, as the last step in our tradition, we burn the money for our ancestors along with paper made luggage filled with paper clothes, and other daily used items made out of paper.
It is believed that all those who’ve passed away will use all of these things in their afterlife. Modern times bring along new, different items that people use in these rituals such as: paper luxury car, house, maid, pets, luxury bags, Ipads, passport, air tickets, to name a few. A very important detail is writing the person’s date of birth and death, as well as their address in hell (which coincides with the one on earth….figure that!). Presumably, the postman will figure it out……!
‘It sounds complicated”, Zvonomir replied.
“In the western world, the deceased are resting forever…Do Chinese people assume their ancestors will carry on living in a different world?”
I never thought about this before. “If yes, that has to be a better world”
You can find Ng Siew Cheng on facebook, where she never miss an opportunity to share her travel photos from Europe and Asia.