Prato, Italy. A 20 minute train ride from Florence. Tuscany’s second largest city. Housing a population of over 180,000. Housing a beautiful celebration of the dead.
A city that doesn’t see much tourism, Prato did not expect 13 photography students wandering through its ancient streets under the loose guidance of their professor and his wife, yet they welcomed us anyway.
My photojournalism class explored the city’s castles and churches with the help of accommodating locals (though the language barrier presented itself as a frustrating obstacle) and enjoyed a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of our beloved Florence.
Prato seemed to me a nostalgic city. A place of reflection and contemplation. Its stunning churches offered quiet sanctuary for the lost and the thoughtful. There was no rush. No hurry. Time herself closed her eyes and learned to relax. Even the shell of the unfinished castle in the city center felt complete – not that it was abandoned, but that it was waiting patiently for someone to come along and finish the job, and it would keep waiting, no matter how long it took.
Somehow, that slowness felt right.
As the sun crawled slowly towards night, we migrated to what I consider the very essence of the city: a beautiful cemetery just a 10 minute taxi ride from the train station.
On the side of a busy road, the cemetery sat adjacent to a modest-looking church. High walls guarded it from the rushing cars outside, and a large gate protected the quiet graves from unwanted visitors.
In stunning tribute to the deceased, each gravesite had been named, personalized and decorated. Most were marked with crosses peeking out from the ground. Some were protected by statues of Mary or of Jesus Christ. Many displayed photographs either protected by frames or crumpled and weathered by the open air.
Flower pots spotted the graveyard: some vibrant with color and life, some overturned, some dry and wilted. Bracelets, necklaces, rosary beads and other personal artifacts rattled in the wind. And as night began to fall, the artificial candle lights began to flicker to life, setting the enclosed graveyard into a warm and enchanting glow.
The church bells clanged eerily in the background, as if to lend a fleeting voice to the resting souls. Something beneath the ground began to breathe – at least for a moment.
I can’t say I believe in ghosts or hauntings or the supernatural. What I felt in Prato was definitively not the steps of parted souls or the hands of disturbed spirits.
What I felt was the energy left behind by the living.
In the crosses and photographs and flower pots I felt the grief of widows and orphans, of fatherless children and daughterless mothers. I felt sisters bidding farewell to sisters, brothers leaving brothers. I felt the floods of freshly shed tears, the striking cold of mourning.
It is the living who gives power to the dead, and never have I seen a cemetery with such astounding power.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón once wrote “so long as we are being remembered, we remain alive.” In Prato, a city of remembering, even the dead were, miraculously, alive.