A gravestone for four
siblings in Sanahin, Armenia, shows what they looked like in life -
and how they died.
Dining with the
being six feet under doesn't you can't spend quality time with your friends
In the former Soviet Republic of Georgia,
being dead is a bit of an inconvenience but it's no reason to miss out on
a social life.
Socialising in this tiny, troubled country on
the southern flanks of the Caucasus Mountains revolves around feasting and
drinking copious amounts of local wine.
There's no point inviting the dead around for
drinks, but the living have adapted to the more sedentary habits of their
ex-relatives making sure that passing away doesn't mean being passed over.
In a Georgian cemetery most graves come
equipped with a table and chairs. Here the families and friends of the
deceased gather to eat, drink and remember old times, often leaving behind
an offering of spirits, bread and cheese for the dead.
On Sundays, and All Souls' Day in particular,
Georgia's cemeteries are full of
life. The sense that the dead never left
is heightened by the Georgians' custom shared by the Armenians across the
border of engraving their black marble tombstones with remarkably
life-like images of the dead.
The Georgians are no fans of idealised
portraits, preferring instead photos of the deceased engaged in their
favourite pastimes. Hence the moustachioed man seated in a forest, nibbling
a bunch of grapes; or the war veterans posturing with Kalashnikovs and
One young man is shown perched on the bonnet
of his modifed Lada, raising a glass of beer whether a celebration of his
life or a warning about his means of death, it's hard to say.
Another gravestone shows four dark, handsome
siblings with a single date of death. Etched in the background is a car
frozen in mid-air as it misses a bend on a winding mountain road and smashes
through a barrier.
Death in the Caucasus is not something to be
squeamish about, hidden away or cloaked in euphemisms. The Georgians
celebrate their dead the same way they embrace life with passion, defiance
and enough home-made wine to kill men of lesser nations.
If you want to understand how this tiny
country endured decades of Soviet rule, civil war and economic meltdown
yet survived with its spirit intact you could do worse than visit a
Just remember to bring a little something to
share with the dead.
First published in the
New Zealand Listener, September 2006.