Sunday, October 15, 2006

Grave Tending: A National Holiday

Imagine a country where honoring deceased family members rates national holiday status. Imagine a people who will travel clear across that country to clean, decorate, honor and pray over the graves of their ancestors. Devotedly every year, without fail.

Now that your imaginations are warmed up, let's cruise into over drive. Imagine a brisk, black, autumn night... crisp fallen leaves on the ground crunch under foot. You're standing in a graveyard surrounded by elaborate tombstones lit by the eerie glow of thousands of candles in every hue of the rainbow. The air smells heavily of flowers, mums and chrysanthemums, mixed with the earthy sent of damp soil and decaying leaves. The only sound you hear is the murmur of others who have come to pray for the souls of their loved ones. The scene is a solemn one, very spiritual, very unearthly. It is a time dedicated to the those who have left this world for another.

The country is Poland. The day is All Saint's Day (Wszystkich Świętych), otherwise known as the Day of the Dead... November 1st.

In the days leading up to November 1st, Poles will travel great distances to clean and decorate the gravestones of their loved ones. They will often coordinate efforts with other family members to make sure that none of the graves of their ancestors are forgotten. Poles tend to have a different relationship with death and the deceased then we have. They frequently visit the graves of their loved ones and take great pride in tending and decorating their graves all year round. Sure some people in the U.S. do this, but in Poland it's a national pastime. But no day is as important as All Saints Day.

During the week preceding All Saint's Day, vendors set up tables and booths along cemetery entrances. They sell all variety of candles, some as small as votives, others as large as Mason-type jars, in every color imaginable. They also sell beautiful and colorful flowers, mostly mums, because they're the hearty flower of autumn. As people come to the cemetery to clean and decorate graves they buy the candles and flowers from the vendors. Once they have swept and scrubbed the large above-ground gravestones of their loved ones they will place multiple pots of flowers and candles on the graves in a show of honor and remembrance.

Many cemeteries have large monuments or sculptures honoring those brave countrymen fallen in the wars. Virtually everyone in Poland has family members who died in defense of their country. Given that Poland was at the center of WWI and WWII, that's understandable. So as people visit the cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of their family members they also will buy remembrances for the soldiers... flowers and candles for those monuments too. And if they happen to notice a nearby grave not tended, they will buy a flower or candle for that one too. It is too sad for them to think of a grave forgotten.

So, let's get back to our candle-lit cemetery on the night of November 1st. The night is black but the glow of the thousands of candles can be seen for miles. The reason for the candles is so that departed souls can find their way through the darkness. But they also serve to light the way for the living who've come to pray and honor the deceased. The night is not filled with excitement or fear but rather a feeling of connection with family members long gone. It's a ritual that has been passed down through generations and is played out in all the Roman Catholic cemeteries, all around Poland, every year, on All Saints Day.

Pictures can be worth a thousand words but unfortunately I have no photos of my own to share with you. I have never been to Poland let alone on All Saint's Day. But I would like you see some beautiful photography capturing this grave tending ritual in Poland. So if you will bear with my directions you will be able to see for yourself images captured by a couple of wonderful professional photographers.

The web site you will visit is for the city of Tarnow, in southern Poland. The site is all in Polish but you don't need to understand one word of the language to view the photos. The first set of photos was done by one of my all time favorite photographers, Pawel Topolski. These pictures were taken in the day time and are of the people coming to the cemetery and actually cleaning the gravestones. (Notice the elaborate graves, how close they are are to each other, and how many people turn out for this ritual.) These photos were take 4 days before All Saint's Day in 2004.
Old Cemetery in Tarnow
When the page loads, click on the first image under the words "Porządki na Starym Cmentarzu w Tarnowie". A small window will launch with a slide show of photos. Clicking on the arrows are all that's necessary to view the collection of photos. If your browser blocks pop ups you may need to override that option to view the photos.

The next set of photos was done by Lukasz Fus, another very talented photographer. This set of photos is of the cemetery at night on All Saint's Day. Same instructions as with the previous set. Just click on the first image under the words "Stary Cmentarz w Tarnowie nocą" and the slide show will launch. (Notice the beauty of the night when lit by so many candles!).
Old Cemetery in Tarnow at night
You might notice that in this set of photos, Lukasz has his web site address embedded on each photo. Just in case you might be curious and want to check out more of his photography, I would like to mention that he is a professional lingerie/fashion photographer. If you visit his site you will get an eyeful. It's not hard core porn or anything like that but if you're easily offended by risque photos you might want to pass on ole Lukasz's web site ;-) But there is nothing offensive in his cemetery photos!

I originally intended to include this information in the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy (theme: tombstones) but I quickly realized it needed an article of its own. But the next edition of the Carnival is only a few days away so stay tuned for more on tombstones!

I'm going to borrow one of Pawel Topolski's photos to close this post. This photo shows the vendors lining the entrance to the cemetery in Tarnow.


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