Annually, I take a quick trip with my best friend from business school, Amunjeet. We happen to be perfect travel companions; we are interested in the same activities, keep the similar hours, and have each other constantly laughing. The only difference is, as a devout Sikh, she was always a bit disturbed by my obsession with funerals and in particular cemeteries. When we were in Dublin last year, she shot me the dirtiest look when I asked if we could join a stranger on his adventure to the cemetery to visit his late father. (To be fair, she was right, turns out his father was a pedophile and Lord only knows how that trip could have ended. Well done stopping me, Amunjeet!)
This year, we headed to the Baltic States. Although Amunjeet was pleasantly surprised by the architecture and the number of castles (she LOVES castles) I could tell she was frustrated that my obsession with cemeteries had only grown since our last trip. In Latvia, I begged her to go with me to the biggest cemetery, which was 5km outside of central Riga. Amunjeet couldn’t believe that I wanted to use some of our coveted time in this amazing country to “go look at dead people.” I bribed her with the promise of another castle, ice cream, and (of course) my unconditional love. She gave in.
My friend was oddly silent the entire trip out to the cemetery. It was not until we made it to the cemetery grounds that she decided to tell me that she was TERRIFIED of cemeteries and had never been to one. How could I not have known this? While I felt awful for putting her in an uncomfortable situation, in some way, I was honored to be able to, “Pop her cemetery cherry!” (She didn’t find the analogy nearly as funny as I did and just rolled her eyes uncomfortably.)
As we entered The Brother’s (or Warrior’s) Cemetery, our guide explained that the oak trees were lined up like soldier’s going to the war. The memorial with all the graves was actually much lower down- this was meant to replicate how the soldiers had no idea what was ahead of them. Presiding over the grounds is, Mother Latvia with her fallen sons at her feet. I was completely taken by this homage, but I was almost more surprised by Amunjeet’s reaction. I thought she was paralyzed by fear, but she told me that the beauty of the memorial and the eternal flame left her speechless.
We continued on to The Forest Cemetery. I have been to plenty of cemeteries bearing similar names (Forest Lawn, Hill, Garden, etc.) but no location did such justice to its name. The woods are so minimally disturbed that at first glance, you would not realize you are in a cemetery at all! Rather than just have a headstone for each of the deceased, they are allotted an area where there is a personalized headstone, a bench, and a patch to place fresh flowers (we were told by our tour guide that Latvians always place fresh flowers at the grave, even if this means coming multiple times a week to change them.)
While some aspects of the cemetery were deeply moving, such as the memorial of White Crosses, for the most part, this was an incredibly peaceful cemetery. Amunjeet walked out proclaiming that she is now going to frequent cemeteries in London. Although I noted that this cemetery was unique, I couldn’t help but be incredibly proud of her transition. It left me confident in my belief that, “you only fear that which you don’t know” and that if people were to take a minute and just walk through a cemetery on a sunny day, they would realize they are nothing more than serene resting places. I hope Amunjeet will be an inspiration to all out there and others will take a walk in their local cemeteries!