With Ho Thong, upkeep of the graves is the responsibility of the later generations.
The dear cemetery
At 5am, Mr. Ho Thong, a guard staff member of Huong Dien Martyrs Cemetery (Phong Dien District), woke up to sweep the leaves and water the trees in the cemetery grounds. Heavy sweat in the harsh sunlight did not prevent him from watering all the gardens around the memorial section. On 27 July each year, from early morning, he picked flowers from the cemetery’s garden to place on the memorial.
Huong Dien Martyrs' Cemetery became the resting place of heroic martyrs, lying in a green park interspersed with all-seasoned fruits and flowers. In the cemetery, sunflowers, chrysanthemum, or wild pansies were in full blossom, revitalizing the sobering sight of the area. Interestingly, the neighboring people started to name fruits and flowers here particularly attached to their growing place: the “cemetery” watermelon, “cemetery” vegetable and flowers, just as normal and habitual as part of their lives.
Mr. Nguyen Huu Minh and Mr. Ngo Sinh are taking care of the martyrs’ graves
Six years ago, Thong came to work as a maintenance staff at the age of 32. Parts of his daily routines involved taking care of the martyrs’ graves, sweeping the cemetery grounds, watering trees, pruning branches, guiding relatives of martyrs to visit and find the graves, and so on.
"Apparently, this job is not suitable for a young person but as a Vietnamese, I find myself somehow responsible for caring for the older generations who have laid down their lives for the country. We try to keep their resting place always tidy and spacious, not only because it is our duty but because we want to pay special tribute to them.
For more than 23 years, Nguyen Huu Minh silently has worked as a guard in the resting place for those who sacrificed their lives for the country at Hue city’s Martyrs' Cemetery. At the age of 25, the young man Nguyen Huu Minh volunteered to remain with this job when the cemetery was newly established.
From the very first day at work, Minh still thought he was destined to commit to this place. "When I was only 25, many people asked why such a young man did not choose another job; I just explained it was a sealed fate."
Huong Dien Martyrs' Cemetery became a flowerbed
Minh's co-worker, Ngo Sinh, also has more than ten years of dedication to this cemetery. For long, he knows each grave like the back of his hand. The City Martyrs' Cemetery has 1,986 graves, of which 285 were named. Whenever relatives of these deceased heroes pay visits, Sinh could immediately recall the exact position of the martyrs’ graves.
Mr. Sinh confessed: "This work is not too hard, but only those with dedication would stay. Although we are not under supervision, we find ourselves responsible for taking good care of their resting places. For over a decade, now I feel as if I were living with the martyrs. "
A lifelong commitment
With Thong, Minh, or Sinh, the joy of the job is simply to see incense lit up for the deceased, the cemetery grounds tidied, and trees pruned neatly. Accompanied by these caretakers, the graves of heroic martyrs are no longer lonely. Strangers as they are to each other, from deep inside, the maintenance staffs think of the martyrs as their relatives.
For years, they have witnessed countless heart-touching stories of life and death separation, of reunion between families and the martyrs’ souls, and of agony years after years finding the remains of their loved ones.
Thong recalled the most touching one was the love of a faithful lady from Hanoi with a martyr named Ha whose remain rested at Huong Dien martyrs’ cemetery. After years of searching, since Ms. Xuyen found the resting place of her old lover, every year, on his death anniversary, she came here to sing or recite poems at his grave for 3 days and nights in a row. Touched by the sincerity of her heart, Mr. Thong also stayed awake to accompany her.
Days by days, relatives of martyrs from other provinces and cities visited the cemetery in hope of finding a relative’s grave but left the place in disappointment and tear. Although sad, the guards still offered detailed guidance and help, sharing with the guests sleeping mattress or blanket, and volunteering to take them on motorbikes to the battlefield where their relatives sacrificed their lives.
Minh said " On hearing a small piece of news, some families residing in the northern areas could immediately board the train to Hue without knowing the exact destination. As soon as the train arrived in Hue, they caught motorbike taxis to come here immediately. We stayed up all night with them finding the right graves in the cemetery. There were times we couldn’t help feeling moved by the "reunion" of families, friends, and the martyrs”
These stories engrave in the guards’ minds for long, encouraging them to live up to the promise of taking a better care of the martyrs’ graves. Sinh emotionally disclosed, "seeing families of martyrs making all their way here and feeling for their plights, we always promise ourselves that we would take care of the martyrs’ graves even better for their families to feel reassured."
Not only for duty, the guards have fulfilled their work with all their responsibilities and devotion. Despite minimal monthly salary of roughly 2 million dong, all three guards have never thought of leaving their chosen job.
"It's not just about earning an income, this is a special job showing the gratitude of those who are living in independence today. We are indebted to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the country, so with modest contribution, we wish to dedicate ourselves to caring their graves just like those of our loved ones in the family. And that would be my lifelong commitment. "
Story and photos: Minh Hien