Glowing Cemeteries: November 1 & 2 in Slovakia (All Saints and All Souls Days)
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.
My friend Julie wrote about another interesting graveyard tradition in Moldova, although at Easter.
There are also more photos on my flickr account.
Do you have any traditions relating to the dead?
Nov 11, 2014 @ 04:39:40
Naomi – this is so beautiful. Thank you for articulating your experience.
This year, we did things differently, as All Souls was on Sunday. Fr. Paul said a special mass on Monday and then we went over to the graveyard and he blessed the graves of our loved ones. For Catherine and I, as we walk though the graves it becomes apparent that we know at least half the people buried there. There was something so heartfelt about the experience and it seemed so healthy to remember those we love that have passed on.
Nov 11, 2014 @ 05:15:26
Incredible photos, Naomi. It is a challenge trying to find a good angle to capture all the candles and flowers, to really show how impressive and beautiful it is. But you’ve done an excellent job. Are these cemeteries in your village? This year, I walked around Ondrejsky Cintorin in Bratislava in the fog. I brought candles and laid them on the most moss-covered, forgotten graves.
Nov 11, 2014 @ 10:21:05
Thank you! In all there are actually four cemeteries – my husband’s home town, Trnava on the way home, a small one that doesn’t have any lampposts, and the one in the day time is where I actually live.
Ohhh, candles in the foggy dark on moss, sounds mystical!
Nov 11, 2014 @ 10:55:09
Such a beautiful tradition. You captured the mood beautifully.
Nov 11, 2014 @ 12:18:10
Lisa of Canadian Expat Mom
Nov 19, 2014 @ 22:25:20
Wow! It’s really beautiful! It makes me wish I went back at night to see all the candles! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Nov 20, 2014 @ 01:29:28
There’s always next year (the lovely thing about traditions, so regular 🙂 ) Thanks for stopping by!
Nov 25, 2014 @ 23:11:43
The photos both during the day and night are beautiful. It is nice that you are teaching your children as they will carry on the tradition. Do Slovakians celebrate Halloween on October 31? In Zambia a graveyard is a place you do not visit often. Usually one visits the grave when going to show someone who was not at the burial.
Nov 27, 2014 @ 01:21:27
Halloween generally isn’t celebrated here, although I noticed a few more Halloween themed parties this year. Nothing like the trick or treating I grew up with!
Oct 06, 2016 @ 06:47:24
You were able to capture my old traditions better than me, although I grew up with them. Now my family lives across the ocean, and I was never able to explain to my children or my husband the solemnity and grandeur of these days. Thank you for the beautiful pictures!
This past Sunday, I was teaching to my CCD 7th graders that Halloween started as “All Hallo’s Eve”; the evening before the All Saints, and All Souls Days. We began to work on our Family Trees. Learning about our roots, that we are always connected to our relatives, alive and departed alike. Not to mention learning about our names, our saint patrons.
Trying to connect all the traditions and holy days together. Slovak and American. Will try to be done by Thanksgiving:)
Oct 06, 2016 @ 17:20:44
I’m so glad this will help you explain this beautiful tradition to your family. Mixing all these cultures certainly makes for rich traditions. The connections to our roots is certainly a profound one, one that we don’t even understand.
Apr 11, 2017 @ 20:44:22
Thanks for sharing these again! Great photos of a lovely tradition. The celebration of Halloween in the U.S. is about 180 degrees from this!
Apr 20, 2017 @ 16:20:38
Yes, it’s very different. One of my favourites!
Sep 05, 2017 @ 21:19:08
Naomi, thanks for the blog & many trips down memory lane. Great Grandparents were from Eastern Slovakia, came to USA 1890’s. I remember visiting graves when I was growing up in SE Pennsylvania in the 1960’s including hearing stories about who the dead people were & how they were related to us. Anyway, thanks for the memories.
Sep 07, 2017 @ 09:25:32
You’re welcome, glad I could be the catalyst.
Jun 03, 2018 @ 13:50:24
Hi Naomi, Maybe you could help me. My grandmother (whom I never knew) was Slovak – her first name was ‘Milka’ (not sure of spelling) but just talked to another woman named Milka who said that it is a popular Slovak name for those born on October 28th as was name of a Saint. Is this true? Can you give me more information if so. Thank you
Jun 20, 2018 @ 14:37:19
For the Slovak name calendar, October 28 is Dobromila, and as almost all Slovak names are given a diminutive, Milka could easily be short for Dobromila. Most people I know aren’t named the same as the name of their birthday though. All I could find about the name is that it was equated with the name Agatha, which means ‘good’, but didn’t see an actual saint named Dobromila. It means “good” and “love”. Lover of good? That’s all I could find.
Nov 14, 2018 @ 17:49:44
Naomi – thanks for this lovely post. My grandparents migrated from Polomka (Horehronie region) before WW1. They were never able to return. I was the first family member to visit (2015) and when I went to their village, I went to the church/cemetery and saw many gravestones with their family names and those lanterns. I took a photo of them with me, and, after “driving them” around the village to “see it” again, I went to a far corner of the graveyard and “buried” them, planting a little flower over them. I also took some of the grave soil and returned to PA and sprinkled it over their graves. Full circle. When I go back, I hope I can find the spot – and maybe light a candle there.
Nov 14, 2018 @ 23:14:40
What a beautiful story. How loving of you to do that for them.
Nov 23, 2018 @ 02:41:24
What a wonderful Slovak tradition. I would like to see celebrations you see here done elsewhere. The candles on the graves surely must make many people happy that their loved ones are not forgotten.
Nov 23, 2018 @ 12:43:46
I know of people who have seen these here and started it back home. It started small and other people liked it so much that they joined too.