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The Warsaw Voice » Society » October 29, 2008
On the town
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Memento Mori
October 29, 2008   
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When Protestants in English-speaking countries spend Oct. 31 having fun and throwing Halloween parties, Polish Roman Catholics visit their relatives' graves and remember the dead on All Saints' and All Souls' Days, Nov. 1 and 2.

In Poland it is the custom to visit the graves of deceased family members on Nov. 1, All Saints' Day. In line with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints' Day is a time to remember those who are no longer with us and who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven with God.

Meanwhile, Nov. 2 is All Souls' Day and a day to remember the deceased whose souls are in purgatory and need the support of prayers. However, in practice it is on Nov. 1 that All Souls' Day traditions are kept. Above all, this is because Nov. 1 is a national holiday and thus it is easier for people to find time to visit the cemetery on this day, clean and decorate graves, and light candles.

This deep-rooted tradition to honor the dead dates back to an ancient Slavic ritual known as dziady. On the night of dziady, to ensure the goodwill of the deceased and to help them achieve peace in the hereafter, people left them food offerings. Bonfires were lit to ward off the souls of those who committed suicide, of murderers and the like. The Slavs stopped practicing this ritual after they converted to Christianity.

Graves all around
There are 40 cemeteries around Warsaw, from very large "necropolises" to small parish cemeteries. The largest of the capital's cemeteries with regard to the number of graves are the Powązkowski and Bródnowski Cemeteries and the Komunalny Północny Cemetery, also known as the Cmentarz na Wólce. A total of almost 4 million people are buried in these three cemeteries.

The Cmentarz na Wólce, which opened in 1973, covers an area of 143 hectares, which makes it one of the largest in Europe.

The Powązkowski Cemetery is the oldest existing cemetery in Warsaw. It was built in 1790 with the support of King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Many worthy Poles, who did much for their country and nation, are buried here. Hugo Kołłątaj, one of the founders of the Polish Constitution of May 3, lies in the oldest part of the cemetery, as does Jan Kiliński, one of the heroes of the 1794 Kościuszko Insurrection, and Jacek Malczewski, the outstanding painter.

In the 19th century the Avenue of Persons of Merit was built within the Powązkowski Cemetery. Along its route lies Nobel Prize winning writer Władysław Reymont, poet Leopold Staff, and Jan Nowak Jeziorański, a partisan courier during World War II and later the director of the Polish section of Radio Free Europe. The cemetery also contains the graves of victims of national uprisings, including the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and those of popular artists such as singer Jan Kiepura and actress Kalina Jędrusik.

For over 30 years, celebrities have been collecting funds for the cemetery. The money is used to restore gravestones of historical value. The writer and publicist Jerzy Waldorff, who has since died, initiated the fund collection and also founded the Social Committee for the Care of Old Powązki, which today carries the name of its founder.

Names from Polish history and culture can also be found in the Bródnowski Cemetery. This cemetery was built in the second half of the 19th century and was designated for burial of the homeless. As time went by it was not only used to bury the poor. Among famous people buried here is Roman Dmowski, a national democrat and politician from the 20-year period between the two World Wars; singer Mieczysław Fogg and athlete Halina Konopacka, who won the first ever Olympic gold medal for Poland.

Candles in the wind
It is worth visiting Polish cemeteries when it is dark on All Saints' Day. Thousands of lit candles make for a unique atmosphere, which is decidedly more conducive to meditation than when the graves are being cleaned and decorated.

Tips for travelers
As All Saints' Day draws nearer, it is worth bearing in mind that all shops are closed that day, except for perhaps some small local stores, and public transport is limited. Roads are often closed around cemeteries. But special buses are laid on to transport people to Warsaw's largest cemeteries. For information visit www.ztm.waw.pl or www.autobuser.pl
Poles will often travel far to visit the graves of their loved ones. Thus roads can get very congested at the end of October and beginning of November. Every year the police promote a road safety campaign. Last year at this time there were 761 road accidents in which 99 people were killed and 942 were injured. Drunk driving is also a plague and the police in this period last year stopped 2,000 drivers who had been drinking alcohol.

Keeping up tradition
The Polish way of celebrating All Saints' Day is unique. It is true that Poles do not organize family gatherings on the scale that the Russians and Roma do. But it is suffice to be near a cemetery on Nov. 1 to get the impression that three-quarters of the population of Poland is honoring the memory of their deceased.

Poles also honor their dead while abroad too. For example, every year candles are lit in a Polish cemetery in China. Moreover, this custom shows no sign of waning. There are few Poles who have opted to light a virtual candle on the internet instead of a real one in a cemetery on Nov. 1.

Through Foreign Eyes
Marcel Boer (Netherlands):
The Polish way of celebrating All Saints' day is very unique. In the Netherlands the day is only celebrated by Catholics, who live in the southern part of the country. The Protestant majority and immigrants have no such special day to honor their dead. I think that the Polish tradition for whole families to go to the cemetery is unique. You can discern the character of a nation by the way it cultivates remembrance of its forefathers. My wife is Polish so we keep up this tradition together.

Irina Zinczuk (Ukraine):
Until the moment when I arrived in Poland I had no actual idea of how Poles celebrate All Saints' Day. I must be honest and say that Polish customs have much surprised me. In my country, in Ukraine, we celebrate this day in a completely different way. All Saints' Day is in the second week after Easter. Family members go to the cemetery after Mass and take with them food such as eggs, cakes and so on, which have been blessed. Some of this food is left at the graveside and the family eats some. We walk around the cemetery from grave to grave and the priest blesses each one. After the ceremonies in the cemetery, the whole family has a picnic in the forest. In Ukraine this is a joyful time because we are happy that our close ones are in heaven. It is spring and there are lots of flowers and the sun is shining. In Poland it is rather a sad day, a time for reflection, to meditate on life and death and get lost in thought. What I also noticed in Poland is that people buy many flowers and candles and that there is such a huge choice of both. We also buy flowers and light candles, but in Ukraine it all looks so much more modest.

Fernando Flores, Ecuador's ambassador to Poland:
The ways of celebrating the Day of the Dead in Poland and in Ecuador are not very different. But in Ecuador we celebrate the Day of the Dead on Nov. 2 and this day is free from work. People living in different parts of the country travel to visit their relatives' graves. They bring flowers to commemorate the dead, because the flower is the symbol of keeping the picture of the dead relatives in heart and mind. People go to church to participate in a service or just to pray for the souls of the dead. I know that in Poland, during celebrations, families gather at the table. In Ecuador it is a bit different. After visiting cemeteries people gather together and drink colada morada and eat guaguas. Colada morada is a drink made of black corn, wild fruit, herbs and spices and guaguas are figures resembling humans made of bread. The roots of drinking colada can be traced back to the Inca times; guaguas are an 18th-century tradition. The Day of the Dead, the same as in Poland, is the day of meditation and remembering the dead by telling younger generations about their ancestors. In Ecuador, traditions slightly differ depending on the region of the country. In some regions it is common to bring food to cemeteries.

Magda Błaszczyk
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