An Irishman's Diary

 

"Ceausescu?" The old gravedigger was clearly familiar with the name. Prompted by my inquiry, he led me through the Ghencea Civil Cemetery to a cross marked with the Communist star and inscribed: "A tear on your tomb from Romanian people".

Two miniature flags - one Romanian, one Communist - fluttered on the former dictator's grave along with wilted flowers, burnt candles and three fake poppies surrounded by a black metal fence.

The plot was modest, almost anonymous - the final resting place of a despot who ran Romania and its 20 million people like a personal fiefdom until his overthrow in 1989. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were tracked down to Targoviste, 50 kilometres from the capital, hurriedly court martialled and executed by firing squad on Christmas Day. Their bodies were returned to Bucharest but they were buried separately - Nicolae in Row I35 and Elena in Row H25.

It was surprising to find Ceausescu's grave untouched by vandalism. Indeed, an elderly woman paused at the graveside for a silent prayer. She regarded me reproachfully, shaking her head as if to suggest the despot's bloody fate was unjust. Then she shuffled away.

Elena Ceausescu's grave lies some 50 yards further in the shadow of someone else's mausoleum. It is even simpler than her husband's, a black cross ringed by a metal fence. Weeds and candle wax speckle the soil.

A third Ceausescu is buried nearby. Their youngest son and heir apparent Nicu died from liver cirrhosis in 1996, aged 45. The old gravedigger guided me to a more salubrious white marble plot. "Nicu," he remarked, absently scratching his chin.

A robed priest emerged from the chapel, bringing a Romanian Orthodox funeral to a close. The priest stepped aside to make a call on his mobile phone while two young pall-bearers wearing grubby basketball singlets went into the chapel to retrieve the corpse. The body of 83-year-old Dimitriu Barbu was brought outside in an open casket, followed sorrowfully by the bereaved. The pall-bearers placed the casket on an ancient cart and began hauling it through the cemetery towards an open grave by the boundary wall.

I watched the mourners follow slowly, several lighting cigarettes as they walked. One of them approached me. A niece of the deceased, she handed me a candle wrapped in cloth. I explained that I didn't understand Romanian and was not part of the cortege. "It doesn't matter," she said, switching into broken English. "This is a Romanian custom. The candle represents the soul of my uncle," she sighed emotionally, excusing herself to rejoin the funeral. And so I was left with the candle in cloth, three dead Ceausescus around me and the Barbu clan making their sad progress through the graveyard.

I asked the old gravedigger where I should place the candle. He pointed to the open plot and I saw no option but to follow the mourners. I stood at a distance while the priest concluded the ceremony. The coffin was covered and lowered into the ground. Wine and cake was passed around, and tearfully consumed in dignified silence. The niece saw me and when she approached I told her I would put the candle by the grave and light it after the family left.

"Thank you," she replied.

Other mourners trailed back from the graveside, including a woman I took to be a daughter of the deceased. She carried three plastic bags. The niece introduced us and the daughter presented me with one of the bags. It was a yellow duty-free shopping bag from a German airport.

"Please, you will have food and drink to celebrate this day," she said.

Somewhat mystified, I accepted the bag and thanked her. The niece explained that food and drink would represent body and blood. The family would commemorate this day for the next seven years after which they would be satisfied that Dimitriu Barbu was in heaven. She smiled for the first time.

The crowd began to thin out so I approached the grave with my plastic bag in one hand and candle in the other. I lit the candle by the gravestone and withdrew, warmly acknowledged by these people as I left.

Taking a bus back to the city centre I passed the gargantuan Ceausescu Palace, reminding me why I had gone to Ghencea in the first place. I had visited the palace earlier the same day, the scale of its excess a fitting tribute to the aggregate ego of the dictator couple who conceived it. They had demolished one sixth of Bucharest - including the most historic part of the city - to build what is now the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon).

With the pretentious vanity of self-appointed aristocracy the Ceausescus uprooted thousands of city residents, flattening their homes so they could also construct Piata Unirii, a city centre boulevard and park. It was a gift to the citizens of Bucharest, an unwanted, non-returnable gift now decomposing in memory of its creators. Algae lines the fountains. Weeds poke through overgrown grass.

With the sun beating down I found a park bench and opened the duty-free bag to find a generous picnic consisting of bread, chicken schnitzel, salami, cheese, tomatoes, olives, fruit and cake carefully wrapped, complete with cutlery and brand new delph. Communion for one. A feast for the soul.

It occurred to me that Dimitriu Barbu had lived before, through and after Ceausescu's reign. Such an obvious fact offered a strange circularity to the day's events: that as a stranger in a foreign city I should find myself in this park, the pet project of an ousted dictator, enjoying a lunch to commemorate the death of a man I never met.