For one in a million, life is a series of extraordinary events. For most of the rest, life is thoroughly uneventful until death claims it. Ordinary people who once lived would be buried in an unfanciful manner, then soon be forgotten, or would be remembered for no more than a few generations.
In a cemetery just outside the centre of Sucre, Bolivia, there live thousands of ordinary souls, each sits in a niche tucked in columbarium walls. Through my foreign eyes, the niches look unfamiliar. In Hong Kong, niches look all the same – plaques are designed with a lack of design and characterised by a lack of character. Except for the name of the niche owner, the dates of birth and death, and a mostly black and white passport photo-like portrait sticking on top , the plaques are non-distinctive. Columbariums are cold, impassive and impersonal. It is a little disturbing even, as one can hardly pretend not to notice a shower of fixed gaze from the owners of the niches captured in photos , now living in another world, when your eyes sweep past the walls.
But here in Sucre, columbarium walls are little vertical gardens and exhibition galleries, expressive, elegant and loving.
Just a few dozen centimetres in diameter, the niche openings take a variety of shapes: arched, squares and hearts. Some even have their own little awning to shield against the rain and shine. Some are pure white, but some are painted with lovely hues of pink, yellow or baby blue. They are covered with glass doors. Behind the glass doors, small vases with flowers, little statues of Christ and other tiny things fondly loved by the deceased were placed. There are no photos of the dead on display. This makes sense. Does it matter anymore how the deceased looked like, now that they were no longer around? Any impression stays in the memories of the living and lives on, unless, even the living feels no more confident in recalling the faces of their loved ones without the visual aid of some old photographs?
The day was lovely when I strolled along the snaking paths of the cemetery in Sucre. White daisies grew tall and strong on the side, swaying slightly in the breeze. People took leisure walks beside the columbarium walls. Children played hide-and-seek or rode on skateboards. The cemetery was enjoyed by both the living and the dead.
An elegy started to play from afar. I walked towards that side of the graveyard. The band led in front, followed by a procession of people in all ages marching slowly behind the hearse in silence. There was more solemnity than sadness on their faces. I would not have an idea on the identity of the owner of the corpse that was carried in the hearse. But I felt glad that this fellow being, who had met his destiny, would have his final resting place in this little haven. There is nothing glamorous here, but there is peace.
The majestic entrance of the cemetery, painted in pure white, bears the inscription ‘Hodi mini cras tipi’, which means ‘Today it’s me, tomorrow it’s you’. Being mortal, we walk our journeys to death. Death follows us wherever we go. Ordinary or phenomenal, our destinies is one single destiny. It would not matter to me anymore where I shall be buried when I die. But come to think of it, it would not be a bad idea at all to be buried in a beautiful garden like this one in Sucre, and to be remembered fondly by someone.