I was vacationing on the Greek island of Corfu for about a month in August of 1992. During the tourist season, Greece is kind of a crossroads of the world. It was a lot of fun being surrounded by such a wild variety of people from every corner of the earth but because of the crowds, there were times when I needed to clear my mind and seek solitude. On such occasions, I would usually rent a motorcycle and head into the interior of the island in search of isolated trails and sleepy villages. The inhabitants of these villages were usually more friendly than the locals working in the popular areas, who were often burned out and overworked by the constant flow of tourists.
I rode for hours along dirt trails flanked by bright yellow wildflowers, over steep and rugged hills, and past wide fields where farmers struggled to grow anything that would take root in the barren, rocky soil. I had to keep a close watch on the gas tank because there were no gas stations anywhere except at the village where I had rented the motorcycle. At half a tank, I had no choice but to turn back.
The needle had just hit halfway and I was turning around to head back when I noticed an old cemetery in the distance, far away from any village or other sign of habitation. I decided to stretch my legs before beginning the long trip home. I rode to the gate, killed the engine and laid the bike down.
As I passed through the creaky, wrought iron gate, I couldn't help but notice how silent the place was. I had to whistle to reassure myself that I hadn't gone deaf. There were only a few hours of daylight left and a strong wind was blowing, stirring the overgrown grass which partially obscured the scattered tombstones.
In Greece, people aren't always buried. The bodies of the deceased are usually laid to rest inside marble tombs above ground with lids that can be easily lifted or slid aside. Several times, I walked by tombs where the lids had been removed and skeletal remains were clearly visible. There is also a practice in Greece of exhuming the skeleton and placing it in pieces on top of the lid. I was never given a decent answer as to what function this served. Needless to say, it was very disconcerting to someone from America who was not used to seeing such things. Where I come from, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world (Los Angeles, California), youth and beauty are pursued to the point of mental illness, and death is sanitized and brushed away quickly so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. Suffice to say I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
There are some parts of the world where it is customary to keep the skulls of dead relatives on the mantle in the living room. Ironically, rather than being more afraid of death, people in these places have no fear of death at all. For them, keeping the skulls of their loved ones around serves several purposes - to honor the memory of their ancestors, to keep their dearly departed close to them (though in a somewhat macabre way), and to take away some of death's power.
Wreaths, bouquets and small, homemade crosses dot the landscape of all the Greek islands, marking the exact spots where someone died. Widows wear black for many years after their husbands pass away. It is a country immersed in the spirit world. This may be one reason the Greek people are so well known for their passion and exuberance for living.
In Greek cemeteries, there are small cabinets with sliding glass doors at the head of the tombs where candles and incense are burned, and which usually contain a photograph of the deceased. This tugged at my heart more than anything else - to see the faces of the people buried there as they were in life; their warm smiles and the kindness in their eyes. I spent a long time wandering around, kneeling in the grass next to the graves, talking to the people lying there and wondering how their lives had been.
At the rear edge of the cemetery, an unusual sight caught my eye - a tomb that was twice as large as any of the others. When I looked inside the cabinet, I found out why. There was a photograph of a young couple with their arms around each other, laughing. The date of their deaths, etched in the stone, were identical. Apparently, they were married and had died together in some kind of an accident. They had been laid in each other's arms inside the tomb. I can't begin to relate all the feelings I had while looking at that picture of them together, bursting with youthful energy, their eager smiles full of excitement and anticipation of their lives together.
A line from a poem by Andrew Marvell crossed my mind -
"The grave is a fine and private place but none, I think, do there embrace."
I hoped it wasn't true.
A white marble cross that marked their graves had been broken off at the base, perhaps by vandals or a lightning bolt, and had fallen on the ground at the head of the tomb. Small, orange wildflowers were growing up around it. This might not have been so unusual except for the fact that they were the only flowers growing anywhere in the cemetery. The contrast of these symbols of life and springtime next to a symbol of death was so striking, I decided to take a photograph of it.
I took my camera out of my backpack and started looking for a good angle for the photograph but couldn't find one. I decided that the best angle would be from the top of the tomb looking straight down at the cross, but I felt that standing on it would be disrespectful so I took a few shots from other angles. Unsatisfied, I said to the young couple buried there, "Excuse me. I don't mean any disrespect but I'd just like to stand on your tomb for a second to take a picture of your flowers. I hope you don't mind."
Hoping I had won their approval, I stood on the lid and took the photo from the angle I wanted. I can't recall feeling any cold sensations or chills other than the ones I was already riddled with due to my overactive imagination. I stepped down from the tomb and said thank you. Before I left, I picked up their cross and put it back in place on their tomb. The break was clean so it fit like a puzzle piece.
The sun was setting quickly and I was worried about finding my way back in the dark, so I decided to head home. I walked through the creaky, old gate again and kick-started the motorcycle. After being immersed in such profound silence for so long, the noise of the engine seemed louder than ever.
As I rode home in the gathering darkness, I thought about all the faces I had seen in the curled and yellowed photographs of the people buried in the lonely, abandoned cemetery, about the dreams they might have had, and where they were now. I had found the solitude I was seeking, but it was tainted with sadness, particularly because of the young couple. There was peace in the old cemetery but it was a dark peace and I was eager to get back to the resort, and to living.
I left Greece a few days later and traveled elsewhere for several more months. I didn't develop the film until after I returned to California. I took three to four hundred photographs on that trip, and only about ten at that cemetery. But of all the photos I took, only one has an abnormality - the one I took while standing on the tomb of the young couple. A white mist swirls upward from the bottom right to the upper left corners. The mist has defined edges in several areas, which eliminates the possibility of a lens flare or light refraction. It appears to be something, or someone, rushing upward very quickly.
By standing on the lid of their tomb, I had apparently awoken their spirits. Perhaps they had died so young and with so much life left to live, they had not yet accepted death and were eager to rejoin the living. That might also be the reason that the only flowers in the entire cemetery were growing by their grave. Whether they were happy to have company or disturbed by the intrusion, I will never know.