Tag Archives: cremation

Cemetery of the Week #26: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

The Atomic Dome

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
c/o Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
1-2 Nakajimama-cho, Naka-ku, Hirosima City 730-0811, Japan
Telephone: +81-82-241-4004
Established: 1952
Number of interments: 70,000 or more
Admission: The park is free to visitors. Admission to the museum is 50 yen for adults, 30 yen for children under 18.
Museum hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or until 7 p.m. in August). Admission ends 30 minutes before closing time. Closed: December 29 to January 1.

The Genbaku Domu — the Atomic Dome — caps the ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall on the shore of the Ota-gawa River: Ground Zero on August 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic weapon. The bomb exploded, as hot as the surface of the sun, leveling tens of thousands of buildings instantly. The rubbish was set afire by the burning winds. Only the Industrial Promotion Hall, at the eye of the storm, survived amidst the devastation.

Behind the Atomic Dome, the entry to the Peace Museum winds through a darkened hallway. Photographs in window frames recorded the surrounding destruction. Here and there buildings huddled amidst the rubble, windows gaping and roofs ripped away. In the black-and-white photos, Hiroshima glowed the color of ashes.

In another room, little cases display articles of clothing, still stained with blood 60-some years later. In clipped BBC English, the narrative tape assures that the Germans, Russians, British, Italians, and Japanese had all been developing atomic weapons. Whoever won the race and produced the first nuclear bomb felt they had to drop it before the others could. The narration carefully deflected blame from America.

Hiroshima had been chosen as a target specifically because it was an industrial city with a large population that had escaped the firebombing inflicted on the rest of Japan. Any damage Hiroshima received on August 6, 1945 could be attributed solely to the atom bomb.

On that day, children had been released from school to create fire lanes through town in case America dropped conventional bombs. After the daily American fly-over at 7 a.m., the all-clear siren sounded. Everyone who could be outside was, leading to the staggering loss of life: 140,000 the first day.

Winds generated by the bomb fanned a firestorm that leveled 75% of the buildings between the mountains and the sea. Museum cases held a pair of broken eyeglasses or a dented metal water bottle: sole mementos of children who vanished that day. One of the cases contained fingernail clippings and dried strips of skin, all that a woman had been able to save of her husband.

Outside the museum, the Peace Memorial Park holds a jumble of monuments. A polished granite cenotaph in the shape of a bomb recorded the names of the victims. Millions of paper cranes, folded out of bright origami paper, lay in heaps around it. Nearby stood a statue of Kannon, bodhisattva of mercy. The most shocking sculpture captured an almost fishlike creature, fallen on one side, supported in midair at the shoulder and hip. Its limbs had been reduced to sticks, its features and flesh chiseled away. It looked like nothing so much as a charred corpse.

The simplest monument is a grave. In the center of the park, a grassy mound rises like the barrows on Salisbury Plain. This tumulus holds such victims as could be recovered, pried out of collapsed buildings or hauled, bloated, from the contaminated river.

A plaque said that the barrow contained the ashes of the 70,000 victims. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, they had all been cremated. The mound of ashes stood twelve feet high.

Nearby, a huge deep bell tolls. In Japan, temple bells are upended cups of bronze. They have no clappers. Instead, a baton — sometimes big as a tree trunk — is suspended outside the bell. Anyone can pull the striker back and let it swing forward to sound the bell. In this case, every peal said a prayer for the repose of the dead.

This Saturday, August 6, the city of Hiroshima will hold a Peace Memorial Ceremony with speeches, the laying of wreathes at monuments in the Peace Park, and a moment of silence at 8:15 a.m., the time when the bomb was dropped.  More information is here.

Useful links:

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Guided Tour of the Peace Park

Why the Peace Park is a World Heritage site

Tourist information

Related posts on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #44: the Arizona Memorial

My visit to the Arizona and thoughts about Hiroshima

A cemetery book for kids?

Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History Of BurialCorpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History Of Burial by Penny Colman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although this book is a Junior Library Guild Selection—meaning that the text is written at a level suitable for children—the chapter headings seemed intriguing (Defining Death, Understanding Death, What Happens to Corpses, How to Contain the Remains, Where Corpses End Up). In her preface, though, Colman wrote of attempting to avoid the queasiness with which a reader might approach discussions of death. That was a warning to me. I want the dirt on death: the facts, the history, and lots of pictures.

The illustrations in this book are worth the price of admission. A photo from the Library of Congress depicts a surgeon embalming a solider during the Civil War. Another from the same source shows a Native American scaffold burial in 1912. Colman photographed a grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which is covered in seashells, “a tradition brought to America by enslaved Africans.” One page of photos traces the development of tombstone adornment in the U.S. A more recent grave sports two parking meters, both permanently set to read “Expired.” The most beautiful photographs in the book come from the ossuary near Kutná Hora in Czechoslovakia where human bones are used to create an enormous chandelier and a family crest. Stuff like that is more of a guidebook to me than a reference work.

Colman spends too much time for my taste on deaths in her experience, from her beloved Grammie to her great uncle Willi. Still, she does pass on some knowledge about death that I was unaware of. The Egyptians originally used a type of stone in their coffins that they believed had the power to eat flesh, hence the term sarcophagi, “flesh-eating.” The use of “potter’s field” to refer to a graveyard for paupers traces back to a field near Jerusalem where potters dug clay. The Jewish High Priests purchased it with the 30 pieces of silver returned by Judas. The ground was used to bury strangers. During the French Revolution, lead coffins were unearthed and melted down for bullets. A tree grows behind Harriet Tubman’s grave, planted due to a tradition brought here by Africans. They believed that if the tree thrived, the soul must be thriving also. Colman discusses methods for outwitting premature burial and the ages at which children accept the finality of death.

Unfortunately, large passages of this book are quoted directly from How We Die, Death to Dust and other references. It felt to me as if Colman had rushed to finish the book, not taking time to research things in person. It made me wonder why I wasn’t reading Death to Dust itself, instead of this abridged version.

However, as a book to introduce children to the fascination death holds, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts is harmless. One of my favorite passages is a quote from George Bernard Shaw about his awe at watching his mother’s cremation: “The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored flame, smokeless and eager … and my mother became that beautiful fire.” If kids don’t fall in love with death after that, there’s no use in trying.

Here’s the link to Amazon: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

This review comes from Morbid Curiosity #3.

View all my reviews

Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Shelley’s gravestone

Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma
called the Protestant Cemetery of Rome
Via Caio Cestio, 6
00153 Rome, Italy
Telephone + 39 06 574 1900
Email: mail@cemeteryrome.it
Established: 1738
Size: 5 acres
Number of Interments: 2500 – 4000 graves
Open: Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Last entrance is at 4:30.) Sundays and holidays: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Last entrance is at 12:30.)

Prior to 1738, the Vatican forbade burial of unbelievers and foreigners inside Rome’s city limits. Bodies of Protestants either had to be transported to Leghorn, 160 miles away, or buried with the prostitutes below the Pincian Hill. That changed only after a British ship captured one of Napoleon’s vessels and returned its cargo of looted treasures to the Vatican. In gratitude, the pope set aside a field beside the old pyramid for the burial of non-Catholic foreigners.

Until 1870, a Vatican commission reviewed every monument proposed for Il Cimitero Acattolico di Roma. Since they believed there could be no salvation outside the Mother Church, they forbade the epitaph “Rest in Peace.” In addition, according to Permanent Italians, crosses could not adorn gravestones. The limitations led to a beautiful graveyard like no other.

It’s easy to find John Keats’s grave beneath the elderly shade trees in the parte antica, the old section of the graveyard. Keats came to Rome in September 1820, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him five months later. As he lay dying, Keats sent his friend Joseph Severn to visit the graveyard. Severn wrote later, “On being told about the anemones, violets, and daisies, the poet whispered that he could already feel ‘the daisies growing over me.’” (I wonder if this is where we get our euphemism “pushing up daisies.”)

Twenty-five-year-old Keats published the poems for which we know him over a period of four years. He felt he was dying without leaving a mark on the world, so the epitaph he chose for himself claimed, “Here lies One whose Name was Writ in Water.” A lute with missing strings illustrated his tombstone.

Keats’s name doesn’t appear on his own monument, but is carved into Joseph Severn’s beside him. Severn, Permanent Italians says, was an undistinguished painter, but a terrific schmoozer. An artist’s palette, down-turned brushes thrust through its thumbhole, decorates his gravestone. Severn called himself “devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats who he lived to see numbered among the immortal poets of England.”

Keats’s grave brought distinction to the burial ground. It isn’t too much to claim that Keats made the Protestant Cemetery the exquisite place it is today.

Signs point up to Shelley’s grave at the back of the graveyard. At the foot of the crumbling brown wall, his ashes lie far from Mary and separate from their son William, whom they’d buried in the old section. Shelley’s Latin epitaph translates to “Heart of Hearts.” His heart was all that remained of him, unconsumed by the flames, but it doesn’t lie here.

In July 1822, Percy Shelley disappeared off the Italian coast while sailing the Don Juan — named for Byron’s poem. Two weeks later, Shelley’s body washed up on a beach near Viareggio. Despite the flesh of his face having been eaten by fishes, Edward Trelawny, another literary adventurer, identified the corpse because Shelley had books by Aeschylus and Keats in his pockets.

Per Italian law, anything that washed ashore had to be buried immediately, as a precaution against the plague. A month later, Trelawny, Byron, and Leigh Hunt exhumed Shelley’s body. An errant mattock blow cracked open his skull. Byron wanted to keep the skull as a memento, but the other poets forbade it.

They doused the body with wine and set it afire. The corpse split open in the blaze and Trelawny snatched out the unburned heart, which he later presented to Mary. When she died in 1851, the shriveled heart was found in her writing desk, wrapped in a copy of Shelley’s poem “Adonais.” Mary wanted to be buried in Rome with Shelley, but her parents wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she lies in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth. Shelley’s heart was buried with her.

Near Shelley’s grave knelt an angel you might recognize: the original “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life.” Sculptor William Wetmore Story’s last work was made to mark the grave of his wife Emelyn in 1895. When Story died later that same year, he joined her there. Their son Joseph, named for his grandfather, was also re-buried there.

The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. It can be visited any time during its open hours (see website below) for a small donation. Although not necessary, tours in a variety of languages can be booked by contacting the cemetery at mail@cemeteryrome.it.

Useful Links:

The cemetery’s official website.

Aerial photograph of the cemetery.

The cemetery needs help.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Books I’ve reviewed that reference the Protestant Cemetery:

Permanent Italians

The Protestant Cemetery of Rome: A Guide