A reflection for the season of All Saints’ and Remembrance
Today, 1st November, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. Today, we give thanks and remember the lives of the saints and tomorrow, on what is called All Souls, we have an opportunity to remember all those who have died, particularly those who have loved, encouraged and inspired us. So, this week marks the beginning of a time of remembering in Britain, as, coincidentally, it is also the time that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the House of Lords on 5th November 1605, and the First World War ended on 11th November a century ago.
Why do we remember? What is the point, is it not something that prevents us from looking forward, as we continue to look to the past? I found a moving and profound answer to these questions in a recently published book, which I read last week. It is called “War Gardens” and it is written written by Lalage Snow, a writer, filmmaker and photographer. Over a period of about six years, she went to different areas of conflict, such as Kabul, Ukraine and the West Bank, and interviewed people who had a garden. She asked them why they kept a garden going at a time of war and oppression, and what their gardens meant to them.
One such visit is to the Commonwealth Gaza War Cemetery, which was completed in 1920 and the graves of over 3,200 British and Commonwealth servicemen are found there. These were men who fought and who lost their lives in Gaza in 1917. There she meets Ibrahim, the person who has looked after the cemetery for decades, and although he is now technically retired, they are still his gardens.
As they walk around the cemetery, Ibrahim points out the different graves belonging to Christians and Jews, as well as the flowers that adorn them: “marigolds, red geraniums, cornflowers, Michaelmas daisies and carnations”. He explains that what these flowers feel, is what he feels too, and so he makes sure that they are alive at each grave.
It strikes me that this sentiment is the one of the reasons that we remember: certain objects and places help us to express our own emotions. Not many of us will have lived through a war, but most of us will recognise times when the world around us is figuratively falling apart. At those times, when words fail us, we need ways to express what we feel. For Ibrahim, this way is looking after the flowers in the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
The people who are buried there, are not his ancestors, but people he didn’t personally know. Yet, it is his place and his responsibility to look after it. After having shown his MBE, which he received “in grateful recognition of outstanding contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission”, he speaks about the challenges of maintaining the cemetery in a war zone. Not only did the graves need to be restored after recent battles, but more pressingly now, the lack of clean water makes it hard to keep the flowers and plants alive.
However, at the end of the interview, Ibrahim says “This is my garden, I make sure it is always looked after, come what may”. That sentence, I think, conveys a lot of what remembering is about too. It is indeed a responsibility: to pay respect to those who have gone before us. Whether that is our ancestors, who gave of life, or those who fought for us and gave us our peace and freedom.
But, before it gets too depressing, remembering is not about just looking at the past. It helps us to move from sadness to hope. That was particularly powerful about all people who were interviewed about their garden: that their gardens were places of hope, where there was always an opportunity for a new beginning: a place that made people smile, even though often through their tears. And a place that helped people carry on; gave them a sense of normality.
So, to finish, a suggestion. When we feel times are tough, maybe we can ask ourselves what our garden is? Can we think of the person, the place, the memory that makes us smile, even through our tears. And remembering that, is the thing that will help us carry on. Even if it’s just through the day!
Quotes taken from “War Gardens” by Lalage Snow, Quercus Editions Ltd (2018), pages 97-99.