Visiting Graves This Time of Year

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As Halloween arrives in the US, I think of a tradition practiced in Slovakia and Czech Republic. And that is the visitation of the gravesites of our deceased loved ones and ancestors. The first day of November is called ‘Všech svätých’ (All Saints’ Day) and the second day of November is ‘Pamiatka zosnulých’ (Remembrance of the Deceased) or also called ‘Dušičky’ for short (literally, Little Souls).

Although these festive days are historically primarily associated with Catholicism, the general public embraces them, without necessarily even thinking of them as religious observance. We think of them as the time of year when everyone goes to cemeteries and lights candles on the graves of family members, to acknowledge the remembrance of our deceased loved ones. People decorate the places of eternal rest of their predecessors with beautiful wreaths, bouquets of flowers, mostly chrysanthemums, and of course, burning candles. Flower shops have entire large sections dedicated to this November holiday and options for every budget.

As I was born in the former Czechoslovakia, having lived in both of the now separate states long into my adult life, these days will always have a place in my memory associated with trips to cemeteries. First, tidying up the graves ahead of time, cleaning off weeds or any debris that may have fallen from nearby trees, and then festively go again in the evening on the first or second of November, with candles to light up the graves, contributing to the huge field of lights everywhere you look - as the whole cemetery glows in the dark far into the distance.

The evening cemetery on ‘Dušičky’ was always filled with many people, but despite the large crowd, it was a quiet, almost serene scene, as everyone stood above the grave of their loved ones, some with hands clasped together in prayer, their silhouettes discernible by candlelight in the darkness. Then in silence, the silhouettes moving toward the big central cross at the cemetery, and lighting a candle there, as well. The cemetery always looked beautiful, almost magical. The twinkling lights from candles everywhere you looked made the cemetery seem almost as a glamorous lit up city at night. Powerful unforgettable view!

We absorb places with all our senses and the fresh crispy autumn air will always stay in my mind, as this is the time when winter is fast approaching. Add to it the smell of pines from fresh wreaths, burning candles, and you have a completely unique aroma of these special evenings, adding another dimension to them. Many times, the day was cold, wet, or even freezing with icy rain, not friendly weather I would say. But we never failed, and always with steady regularity, visited the graves of our long-gone predecessors. One year, I remember, the snow was already deep in some places, and on this snowy path, my father-in-law slipped, as the cemeteries are usually located on a hillside. He fell, but luckily, he was alright.

Because this holiday most years happens to fall on weekdays, family members from distant locations may travel over the weekend instead to visit the graves of their parents, grandparents, and family members. This is a time of travels, almost akin to Thanksgiving time in the US. We traveled in two different directions and met family members from our extended family who were local to the cemetery. We would be invited to their house to warm up and eat a festive dinner after leaving the cemetery.

As I visited a few family graves in Slovakia this August, I will miss this special November occasion. However, the internet gives us a different dimension of reaching the graves at least virtually, and symbolically lighting an ‘e-candle’ by visiting cemetery websites, such as as https://www.virtualnycintorin.sk/en, https://www.cintoriny.sk/src/index.php and https://ceskehrbitovy.cz/index.php. Just search for the words “cintorín,” pl. “cintoríny,” or Czech “hřbitov,” pl. “hřbitovy,” and add the word “virtuálny,” pl. “virtuálne” or “virtuální.” You can also use the English words “virtual cemetery,” while adding the Czech Republic or Slovakia as the search terms. This way, if you are lucky, you can search in your side ancestral lines, such as siblings or cousins of your direct ancestor, and their deceased descendants in the old country, and light a virtual candle in remembrance and to honor them. Or for a change in your November routine, you may add to your itinerary a visit of your local cemetery in the evening and observe if there are fresh flowers, burning candles or lanterns, because I know there are, as people try to revive family traditions. This is a custom observed in many European countries, not just the Czech Republic and Slovakia. On the other hand, an opposite trend is slowly but steadily seeping into our former Czechoslovakia. Halloween parades and costumes, making their way to mingle with long-rooted customs and intertwining with old traditions. People in Europe can now increasingly celebrate both special occasions.

S novembrovým or listopadovým pozdravom, Iveta

candles in cemetery