Between the Sea and the Cemetery

The small, seaside town of Strand, South Africa, has a cemetery at its heart. In the middle of town, lies a large, antiquated cemetery with a segmented burial ground for Muslims and non-Muslims, separated by a broken, dying fence.

The cemetery faces a gas station and car wash, and a popular strip-mall with a grocery store; car-parts outlet; hardware and garden centre; laundry service; three different ATM machines; DVD rental; pharmacy; cell phone store; dentist; hair dresser; liquor store; fast food restaurants – Western, Indian, Eastern; and a trade-in store for all merchandise going, going, gone.

Strand could be its own Island republic. It embraces all in its quaint, slumbering slow-paced embrace. A teacher of mine defended his move back to Cape Town saying that even the Angel of Death wouldn’t want to visit Strand.

But for a few months every year, the small-town silence is shattered by beach-comers. They flock from far and away, out of town and out of country, and descend on the long stretch of unbroken coast in a ritual frenzy to swim and stretch out, mummified in lotion, on the sand.

Strand’s sea is always magnificent. Like every ocean, it stretches before you to the furthest forever of mystery and wonder. To the East, the retirement town of Gordon’s Bay with stately houses that hug the towering mountain range and offer a perfect view of sea and surf. To the West, a distant skyline that ends with Cape Point and the tip of Africa. When evening comes, you can count the beat of the flash of the lighthouse that warns of unpredictable, tumultuous currents that created a ship graveyard.

Life goes on. Throughout every season, the cemetery remains our stillest epicentre. We live our lives around it. We skirt it, stroll by it, drive by it – not daring to look right or left. Our friends, neighbours, families and foes inhabit it. In it, resides the truest history and teachings of the town.

We go about our businesses and pleasures – do whatever we do – under the desolate gaze of the cemetery. It stares at us, day-in, day-out, and we never give it a second glance. It glares at us with its large tombstones of every shape and size, cracked now with the conceit of permanence; gravestones and headstones toppling over in anguish; elegantly constructed designs greying and blackening; bricks misplaced and mismatched; angel heads gone, nowhere to be seen; names etched in stone and granite now part-erased or fully erased by the slow and steady will of time; inscribed aphorisms and wisdoms that preach into emptiness; family plots with mothers, fathers and children sunken into the ground, suffocated by grass and weed; and so many, many abandoned graves lamenting that they’ve either lost all loved ones to a similar passing or that they’ve died once more, but this time in the very hearts of those they love.

The names themselves speak the loudest. Valentina. Lena. Viktor. Seraphina. John. Yusuf. Munadia. Siraj. Amin. They speak of dreams and wishes, hopes and goals, loves and losses, struggles and strivings, successes and failures, pleasures and pains. Each life would be more riveting than any classical fiction.

It’s clear why I turn away, every day. The truth is near-unbearable.

If they could give me counsel, what would they say? What would they scream?

They’d tell me to walk within, to open a shore of my heart that I’ve consciously declared out-of-bounds, to walk towards that coast where I never want to stand, to look into my true depths, to see that so many of the waves within me are nothing more than the lightest, unreal, evanescing foam.

They would repeat His words, “And how many signs in the heavens and earth do they pass by while turning away?” then say to me: Ready your sails now; for soon, your sea will also be still.