The atmosphere is hushed, despite the number of people. Families walk slowly, stopping for a moment here or there with a candle or flowers. Candles and more candles flicker in the dark, illuminating a portion of chrysanthemums or the leaves on the tree above.
“May perpetual light shine upon them…” Prayers for the dead waft heavenward.
I’m in a cemetery. So are many others.
In the Catholic calendar, November 1st is All Saints Day and November 2nd All Souls Day. They are days specifically set aside to remember and pray for the dead.
In Slovakia, those are the busiest days on the road. They are both bank holidays, which usually means a four or five day holiday, except this year when it happened to fall on the weekend. The roads were still busy though, as Slovaks drove home to pay homage to their ancestors.
On both those nights, Slovaks flock to graveyards with candles and flowers. Though it has religious origins, it’s become a cultural tradition for everyone, religious or not.
I love this Slovak tradition, due in no small part to the aesthetics. But I appreciate, as well, the remembering of the dead as a community. Nobody is untouched by death; all of us have loved ones that have passed on.
“See, this is my aunt, Dedushko’s sister,” my husband tells the children. “She was very good to me.”
The recent grave of our friends’ young son chokes my throat. We leave him some white chrysanthemums, he who is now beyond the sadness of this world. The children try to adjust the flowers just so, set the candle in the perfect spot.
“This is for the babies that never got to be born,” we tell the kids. They take it in a stride, it’s just the way things are.
One twin tries to smell the candles, the other has one tightly clenched in his fist until he decides it’s his candle’s turn to be lit. They delight in blowing out the matches.
The glow from cemeteries pass by in the dark as we drive home. I go out to another graveyard on my own after the kids are in bed. It’s quieter now, only me, but the candles still stand guard. A young man comes and stands before a grave; I wonder if I should be nervous.
During the day the cemetery is transformed from quiet and eerie to a boisterous colourful garden. A few candles still soldier bravely on. I wish I could get an aerial view, it’s hard to find an angle that captures all the colour.
It seems fitting: dark and quiet for the sadness that loved ones are no longer with us; joyful that they are now (or hopefully soon) celebrating in heaven.
Do you have any traditions relating to the dead?