Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Foreign Cemetery: Far from home

Foreign Cemeteries and special foreign sections of cemeteries can be found all over the world. Due to economic circumstances, logistics or a stated preference, foreigners are buried where they die rather than return home for burial. Some died in a military campaign, some are ex patriots who consider the new land to be their home, and some died on their journey to the new place and have never known life there.
In any case, a foreign cemetery is a special place that helps us to remember how important a cemetery can be. It is stirring to think of the lives of adventure that have ended so far from where they began, and how a little patch of soil in a strange land is almost a part of another world.

foreign cemetery memorial
A separate Japanese Cemetery sits in the middle of Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon

In the middle of the historic Rose City Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, where I once worked, sits an even older Japanese Cemetery that feels like a tiny piece of Japan. Stepping in from the sprawling wooded Rose City Cemetery with it's beautiful, but conventional, American monuments, through the gates, and into a tightly packed rectangle filled with exotic shapes and script always started me thinking of homesickness and longing for home; of relatives who may never have learned of the fate of their kinsmen in a new world.

foreign cemetery memorial
A poem on the gates reads:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th'inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Thomas Gray (1716-1777)

Across the world on a bluff overlooking Yokohama, sits a counterpart to Rose City's Japanese Cemetery. The Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery's first resident was an American sailor who died before ever reaching Japan. In addition to Americans; many Russians, Germans, British, Dutch and others rest in Yokohama, but not quite in Japan.

Here is a history from the Cemetery's home page:

In the mid 1800's the city of Yokohama was only a small fishing village with a small population. Yokohama's road in the becoming a modern day metropolis began in the 1850's when this country was still bound by a strict isolation policy, which was enforced by the Tokugawa Shogun-ate, literally making Japan an off-limits area for the rest of the world. When Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships (Kurofune), they demanded that Japan renounce the national isolation and open up its ports to the world. Consequently soon after the Japan-America Friendship Treaty was signed at the Yokohama village. Japan was no longer a sanctuary for the Tokugawa Shogun-ate, with the isolation policy shattered it was the sign of the beginning of the fall of the Tokugawa-Bakufu (government by the shogun-ate) and the introduction of the Western industrialization in Japan. It was around this time that the Japanese government had allocated in the Yokohama's Yamate area (Bluff) a sizeable area of land to be used as a cemetery for the foreign nationals who were living in Yokohama.

foreign cemetery memorial

With the news of Japan officially being opened up as a port, the city became in a manner of speaking a melting pot of the nations. Citizens from a multitude of nations came to the city, many consulates were opened and foreigners flocked to the city in the hope of establishing new business ventures, there were teachers engineers and merchants, people from all walks of life came to the city. It is not an exaggerated remark to state that these people were in a manner of speaking the Founding Fathers of the City of Yokohama and perhaps the pioneers of making the country of Japan what it is now today. As the influx of foreigners continued, the population of the city began to increase exponentially and in just a manner of 20 years the city of Yokohama became a major trading port of the world

As time passed, history witnessed two World Wars and the Great Kanto Earthquake also devastated the city of Yokohama. From around this time the number of available plots in the cemetery slowly dwindled and today regrettably there is only a extremely limited number of plots left.
From the late 1800's the cemetery was operated and maintained by the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery Executive Committee. The committee, which is comprised by an all-volunteer staff, is responsible for the finance, maintenance, upkeep, and the daily operations of the cemetery.

foreign cemetery memorial

Recently Ianin Maloney wrote a piece that illustrates beautifully the emotional impact and importance of these cemeteries. Following is an except. For the whole article, visit Japan Today
foreign cemetery memorial

During difficult times, it is always comforting to know that you are not alone, that others have stood where you stand, have gone through what you’re going through and come out the other side. Regardless of how adventurous we feel when first we board the plane that takes us from home, the route that is new for us is nonetheless well traveled. While it is sad to say there is nothing new under the sun, there is often safety in numbers. This feeling, this understanding of the part we play in the unfolding of history, returned to me with increased clarity recently when I visited the Foreign Cemetery in Yokohama.
These men, and the hundreds of others here, came to Japan to seek fortunes, knowledge, adventure, and never left. As I stand and read the names, dates, hometowns, my imagination is filled with daydreams of men my own age stepping from their ships into an amazing new world, full of hopes and fears, confronted by many of the issues I have dealt with in making Japan my home. Language, culture, the daily struggle to get by, to learn, to fit in. Some things never change.
It is rare that we can step outside our subjective bubble and locate ourselves in some kind of context. For me, Yokohama Foreign Cemetery is a special place because the peace and tranquility, as well as the reality of the bodies fading to nothing beneath the grass, allow me that privilege. Between the gravestones and monuments I can read the continuity of existence. I can see bonds between me and the generations that have gone before. I can glimpse for a moment my station in humanity.
foreign cemetery memorial


egghead said...

My uncle is buried in Lichtenstein. He died during WWII. We have a collection of letters from the people who have tended his grave over the years. It was a tremendous comfort to my grandfather and the rest of our family.

Patrick McNally said...

Thanks Jess,
What a wonderful gift for those kind people to care for his grave, and to write. I'm sure it was a great comfort to your family.

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