Reflections on Seeing My Grave in a Thai War Cemetery

It was surreal to glimpse my own name on a grave, especially my professional name.

If Sue the human is a kaleidoscopic entity shifting with mood, situation and subjectivity, S. Bedford the writer is the comprehensible character wriggling between the pages of my articles and memoir—the neurotic nomad, curious and contemplative.

Yet here she is, lying beneath a uniform headstone and manicured lawn.

According to the epitaph, she died at age 22—before she danced amid smoking skulls in a funeral ceremony in Borneo, or snuck into an unexcavated tomb of a Mayan king in Guatemala, or witnessed horrific abuses at a famed NGO in Kolkata. In fact, it was before she experienced any of the misadventures that led to her breaking away from Sue the human.

Of course, this person, lying before me, isn’t really me in any form. This is one of the Allied soldiers who died in Thailand during the Second World War.

kanchanaburi ww2 war cemetery

The team walks between the graves of Kanchanaburi’s war cemetery. (Outpost/John Price)

The team and I are in Kanchanaburi visiting the cemetery, war museum and Kwai River bridge commemorating those who suffered and died in circumstances surrounding the building of the railway between Thailand and Burma under Japanese occupation.

Suddenly, I everything I know about the war flashes before me.

When she was a teenager, my Polish grandmother was in a Russian gulag; I grew up hearing atrocious stories, withheld from my mom and her siblings. As a student in Toronto, we learned about the war from a Canadian perspective, reciting “In Flanders Fields” and studying Normandy Beach. When travelling through Poland eight years ago, I visited Auschwitz and stood before the firing wall, gazing up at the cloudless sky that was the last image hundreds or even thousands of people ever saw.

Now, in Kanchanaburi, I’m bequeathed with another stitch in the tapestry of the Second World War.

Subsequent generations can’t comprehend what our great/grand/parents went through in wartime. This was a multifaceted global disaster, experienced in discrete pockets of shared tragedy. The men buried in the cemetery, for example, hailed from England and Australia, and died far from home in the sweltering jungles of Thailand from injury, infection, disease, starvation, dehydration, exhaustion—the discrete pocket unique to these people.

“While some of the personalized epitaphs make mention of a grieving wife, many of them are signed “Mum and Dad,” as these guys were mostly too young for marriage—the shared tragedy of many worldwide”

While some of the personalized epitaphs make mention of a grieving wife, many of them are signed “Mum and Dad,” as these guys were mostly too young for marriage—the shared tragedy of many worldwide.

The more you travel, the more you begin to recognize threads of a global narrative, be they of cultural evolution or international events. In Kanchanaburi, I followed a thread from my Polish grandmother to this S. Bedford, knitting together the fabric of the Second World War—an event which I’m fortunate enough to never be able to fully comprehend.