We were in Krakow on November first. In Poland this day is known as Wszystkich Świętych (All Saints Day) or Dzień Zmarłych (Day of the Dead, which is the form of the name that was used during communist times). Throughout the day and into the evening, Poles visit the cemetery en masse to remember past loved ones by laying flowers and lit candles on the grave. They are sure to clean the graves a few days in advance, removing any old dead leaves or dirt.
While the holiday itself is common in many Catholic countries, the particular Polish version has connections to an ancient pre-christian Slavic ritual called Dziady, which in Polish means Forefathers. In pagan times, there was a belief that in autumn, at the turn of October and November, the spirits of the dead returned to the world of the living from the afterworld, making it possible to interact with one’s ancestors. Since these spirits held sway over fertility and the success or failure of crops, people would bring meals and other offerings to the grave sites to appease the dead. The night presented a window of opportunity during which the border between the realms of the living and dead was transparent.
During the Christianization of Poland most of these beliefs were either totally stamped out or incorporated into new Christian forms of worship, such as Wszystkich Świętych. However they were never completely eliminated. Versions of the pagan ritual are practiced in parts of Eastern Poland and Belarus today.
These rituals have connections to historic and existing practices in many cultures, including Frawardigan in ancient Persia, the Greek ritual of Anthesteria, and Día de Muertos in Mexico. Sacrifices, fire, periods of fasting and ritual meals prepared for the departed are common themes in all these practices.
In Philadelphia my family would also participate in Wszystkich Świętych, although in a much scaled down manner. We would drive to the cemetery where my Grandparents and Uncles and Aunts were buried, say a few prayers, then head back to the Aramingo diner for a family dinner.
But this year I was in Poland. I wanted to take the opportunity to participate in this ritual the way that my great grandparents and grandparents would have. We decided to visit the Rakowicki cemetery, just a 15 minute walk from the center of Krakow.
Passing through the brick entryway and into the cemetery grounds, you are met with a solemn site. Thousands of small candles set in votive glass holders are placed upon the graves. Some have just one candle, possibly left behind by a husband or sister, while others have dozens of candles and flowers adorning the tomb. You cannot help but feel a sense of reflection and reverence. But the feeling is not overly heavy or somber. People are also celebrating the lives and memories of their deceased loved ones. Many children are present. I watch them curiously inspect the names and pictures on the graves, some of them dating back to the early 1800s.
Nina suggested that we buy and light a candle for my mother, and that since she wasn’t actually buried there, that we leave the lit candle next to a tree, and the tree would connect us to the trees in the graveyard where she rests in Philadelphia. We lit the candle and set it down next to a large tree.
I reflected on my own relationship to death and dying. In this cemetery during Wszystkich Świętych, the cultural relationship to death seems much healthier. There is a clear recognition of death’s inevitability, the holiday ritual itself a memento mori of sorts. It is an opportunity to reflect on the transience of life, a transciense that for me only gives life more meaning and instills it with a sense of purpose. It reminds me that while we can look to religion, politics, art or anything else for guidelines or examples of how to live a meaningful life, in the end we are the ones responsible to create it and live it out.
To remember our ancestors like my Mother, my Uncle John and my Grandfather Anthony and my Great Grandfathers Karol and Kazimir is to remember our own past. In doing so we humble ourselves. We know that we did not get here on our own, that we in fact inherited the knowledge and opportunity that came from the sacrifices of our families, and humanity as a whole. We remember that this is an ongoing chain of generosity that we are part of, and that we now inhabit the most active position in this chain. We can take lessons from the past and change our present, and we can be aware that whatever we do or say will have consequences for those that come after us.
I also remember that I have one short life here. I am in a better position to craft that life into what I want it to be than probably all of my dead relatives. The question always is, what should that life look like? To imagine that we inherently know this on our own is foolish.
For me this is a chance to create meaning in our lives. It’s easy to say nothing matters, that our life is so short and insignificant, and that in the grand scheme of the universe, that I personally will have no impact. And this is in many ways actually true. But by marveling at the miracle of our human existence and the fact that it has occurred at all, and by reveling in the astounding achievements that we have made, and then realizing that this miracle indeed extends to us individually, we know that we have opportunity to do simple things like make friends with other humans, to ride a train from one country to the next, to enjoy a painting or our favorite TV series, to share a meal with friends and loved ones.
Even more amazing is the fact that we can improve upon what has already been made, and also create completely new things in whatever it is we are interested in, from architecture to engineering to sports and beyond. Looking at things this way can turn the incredible existential dread of thinking about our non-existence into an act of recognition that we have hit the cosmic lottery, just by being born. We can simply be in awe at the chance we have been given, through no doing of our own. I have found that doing so gives me a strong foundation upon which to endure and understand life’s challenges and disappointments, as well as yield new emotional and aesthetic opportunities for enjoyment.
To meet the dead is to meet ourselves. Time collapses into a single moment and we understand that we are not so far from all those that have passed before us in the hundreds of thousands of years of human history. We see clearly that we only exist as unique individuals in relation to those around us. We are never alone, and that which makes us who we are in many ways constituted by the fact that we automatically exist in a wider social and cultural context. Without this it would be a floating node, with no reference point and no purpose. But to see that we are part of a network of relationships that transcends time and space highlights this paradox - we are indeed transient and short lived, but how we choose to live our lives can actually transform the past, and form the future. What more meaning can we ask for?