In the Garden of the Dead

On my trip so far, two monuments—the Louvre and the Canadian War Cemetery near Courseulles-sur-Mer— (and I use “monuments” to emphasize their man-made quality) have really struck me. Both were emotionally weighty, but in different ways, and here I want to explore that difference.

To begin with the Louvre, it must be said that it truly does live up to its reputation. It is a museum to trump all museums. It is architecturally majestic, and its contents even more so, surpassing their container. The sheer scope of the Louvre is staggering. Our group spent an entire day there and still did not come close to seeing everything. Entire halls went unexplored, and countless paintings, sculptures, and other works of art we simply passed over. The Louvre is significant precisely in terms of quantity (to say nothing of the quality of work on display), the material weight of human endeavour represented. It is a staggering, jaw dropping, awe inspiring monument, the likes of which are so time honoured that the use of clichés to describe the experience is warranted. There is a reason the Louvre is THE LOUVRE.

The Canadian War Cemetery, on other hand, was an entirely different experience. Where the Louvre awes with its spectacle, the Cemetery awes with its solemnity and simplicity. Where the Louvre is a labyrinth of halls crammed with art and people seemingly without end, the Cemetery is a grid, rows of uniformly constructed headstones set geometrically in the earth. Each headstone is marked with a number, a rank, a name, a date, and perhaps a message from the family of the deceased. Each bears either the maple leaf or the soldier’s regimental insignia. Aside from these etchings, each is the same. There is no colour in the Cemetery other than that of stone and grass and soil. There is no organization by name or date of death, but rather, all soldiers, regardless of age, rank, religion, military branch, or otherwise, lie, together, within the bounds of the Cemetery, fellows, brothers (and even some sisters) in arms, equals by virtue of their service and sacrifice, monumentalized not for the glory of their achievement, but the horror of their loss. 

Where the Louvre takes you through centuries and nations in a generally logical progression, one does not experience the Cemetery in such a synchronic fashion. Our group entered through the gate and then dispersed, winding up and down the rows, slowly scanning, stopping here and there to read, to take a photo so as to better remember, to let specific names be burned into our memories, to let the weight of all those lost be fully felt. Where in the Louvre one pushes through the crowds to see the famous works of history, the Cemetery has no such fame to offer, no clamour to contend with. Rather, significance is found in the pervasive silence of the place, in a shared name or age, or an inscription that rings true, still, today. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

The Louvre is undeniably impressive, remarkable for all the talent and human accomplishment on display. But far more remarkable the Cemetery for its testament to the atrocities of which humans are capable, to the catastrophe of a war that saw the desolation of an entire generation, a catastrophe that scars the continent to this day.

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