Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Cemetery in Kraków

Next year I will write about this for my paper, but I have been writing to a Polish friend about it, so B.A.'s and my visit to a cemetery in Kraków on All Saints Day is very much on my mind.

There is still huge cultural pressure on young people in Poland to get married or embrace religious life, which is great when it comes to making adults behave like adults when otherwise they'd be tempted to become perpetual teenagers, but awful when it comes to women who don't have boyfriends or a religious vocation. The beauty and usefulness of unmarried, unconsecrated aunts must be stressed and celebrated. Maybe there should be a worldwide League of Extraordinary Single Aunts.

And I have a good reason to stress the family ties of Aunts, especially in Poland, because one of the sorrows of Singles is the idea that they don't have families when OF COURSE they have families. We're all born into families, and Poland has the family-friendliest culture I've ever seen. It even beats Italy because although Italians love children, too many (most?) married Italians have spent the past 40 years short-sightedly contracepting Italy towards extinction.

Nothing proved to me the importance of family in Poland more than All Saints's Day. All Saint's Day is a public holiday there, and Poles spend the day and night visiting and tidying the graves of their deceased relations. When B.A. and I were waiting very early in the morning for a tram, I noticed that the one that terminated at a cemetery was absolutely crammed with riders. And even on our less-crowded tram, there were many people with big bundles of flowers and pine branches in dirty plastic bags.

We went to Mass, in part because All Saint's Day is a Holy Day of Obligation in both Poland and Scotland, and after lunch, and fruitless attempts to see art or shop (the galleries and most shops were understandably closed), and a cancelled engagement, we decided to go to a cemetery ourselves.

I was in a tired and frustrated mood from linguistic difficulties, organizational shortcomings, and insomnia, but as we walked to the cemetery, joining the steady stream of people with flowers, branches and dirty plastic bags, and passing the opposite stream of people who now had just the bags, my heart began to lift. We were obviously witnessing something very new to us and very important to Polish culture. Tourists love to be "in the know", and it seemed that we were "in the know."

When we got to the cemetery, we crowded in as others crowded out, and there was still enough light in the early-darkening November sky to read the map. There were two long lists of the names of famous Krakowians buried there. I didn't see the Wojyła family mentioned, but I recognized the names Jan Matejko (the painter), Helena Modrzejewska (the singer) and--especially--Roman Ingarden, Saint Edith Stein's friend and colleague. So having located "our" grave, B.A. and I walked along the avenues to find it.

The tombstones were all raised; they were all big enough to sit on, and there were no flat markers on grass such as we see most of the time in Canada and the USA. They were more like real homes on real avenues; it was a city of the dead. There were trees and tombs as far as the eye could see in all direction, and each and every tomb had coloured, candlelit glass lamps on it. No tomb had been left neglected. There were several lamps on and around the Ingarden tomb; I wondered if family, colleagues or fans had left them there.

There were people everywhere, quiet but chatty and cheerful. Of course I could not understand most of what they said, but I could hear grandsons asking grandmothers how far away their grave was, and grandmothers assuring them not much further. A woman asked me in Polish, and then in a mix of English and Polish, where the Wojtyła grave was, and when I confessed to not knowing, she consulted an older woman who gave complicated directions with much dramatic pointing. In a distant corner, a middle-aged father and college-age son worked silent on and around a flat, raised tombstone, taking lamps and branches from bags.

From a small but ornate chapel, prayers and hymns were so amplified that we could hear them from at least a short distance away. And behind the chapel was a memorial to the victims of communism, in the form of a cross being grasped by many disembodied hands. There was a big crowd of people standing silently before this memorial, and in front of them hundreds of coloured, candlelit, glass lamps. No doubt some of the people were praying for family members who died in the horrors of the Stalinist period and after, but I suspect they were including all the victims in their prayers.

It was not just about family, this quiet cemetery festival. It was about neighbours and nation, too, and the Catholic awareness that our dead--the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant--are still part of our Church, still part of our families, and should not be left forgotten and neglected by us. For the first time in my life, I was well and truly ashamed of the Canadian/American Hallowe'en, with its pagan enjoyment of ghouls and prurient attitude towards our locked and silent graveyards. As a child in a Catholic school, I was directed to make spooky graveyard scenes with tombstones, ghosts, bats and skeletons, spindly trees, comic epitaphs. It was fun, but it had nothing to do with Catholicism because it had nothing to do with love.

The cemetery in Kraków was full of love. Not romantic, sexual love, although perhaps that was there, too, flickering in the hearts of widows and widowers and surviving sweethearts as they prayed for their lost beloveds. Just love: love for family, love for neighbours, love for the dead, love for the saints and parents of saints. Love for God. Love.


rmvb said...

I would agree - not so much a feeling of shame do I have, but of intense disapointment that our country of the US (not sure about Canada, excuse the ignorance) was not founded on the awesome richness that is the tangilble part of love, ie what the traditions of Catholicism inspire in different communities and cultures. I do love US Halloween, but given the option, I would take the ritual of love over the ritual of candy and make believe.
Best line ever: "It was fun, but it had nothing to do with Catholicm because it had nothing to do with love."

MichelleMarie said...

Man, reading this actually made my eyes mist over. One of the reasons for my recent trip to Poland was so that I could "report back" to my parents on how their parents' graves were holding up. There's some pain, especially on my father's part, that they cannot be there to maintain and visit their parents graves since they are located on another continent. So I was given instructions to spruce them up, see that anything needed fixing was fixed, and take photos of the finished result, lol. My extended family in Poland completely understood this and made time to take me to the cemetaries and help me with anything that needed fixing.

Needless to say I wasn't looking forward to this part of my trip, but was resigned to it since it seemed fairly important to my parents. To my surprise, it was one of my favourite parts of the trip - which was admittedly too short and kind of chaotic in parts. It gave me a lot of peace to be in the well-kept and well-visited cemetaries, to see the seriousness with which my extended family took this duty which was without any trace of morbidity. This peace pervaded them so much that they didn't seem to be places of the dead, but of the peacefully waiting.

But then, it makes sense to have this peace, doesn't it? Remembering, praying for, and maintaining the graves of dead family members presumably means that someone will carry out these things for you as well. Plus, it gives the living an awesome sense of rootedness and lineage. You know who you are and you know where you came from, and where you are going.

JustAnotherCatholicGirl said...

Auntie, this article made me teary eyed, it was absolutely lovely. Thank you for sharing your experience. I wish the USA was more like this on All Saints Day.

Jam said...

When I was a kid, my family (and/or my scout troop and/or my dad's unit Family Support Group) always went to a cemetery on Memorial Day. Sometimes we cleaned up; sometimes we just planted flags on the graves or left flowers. I didn't realize until I was older that not everyone in the US had this kind of tradition. It's a good thing for kids, though, I think.

Urszula said...

Auntie, I'm so glad you and BA had a chance to experience this holy day in Poland.

Honestly, I also didn't understand how important the past - and those who have passed away - are to Polish people until I went and lived there. At first when my cousin would say, "Let's go walk over to Grandpa's grave" I would think it morbid. But the more I got used to these monthly walks, when we would bring fresh flowers and lay them on the grave, the more peace I experienced, and the closer I felt to my Grandpa. I think the traditions related to All Souls' Day in Poland are beautiful, and thank you for writing about them.

Magdalena said...

My grandmother (in Germany, not Poland) lived as a widow for over 20 years. She used to go to the cemetery in order to meet people to talk to when she felt lonely. There was always someone there. Of course, she lived in the same village all her life, so she knew everybody. But isn't that nice?
After sunday Mass, the whole village would gather at the cemetery to light new candles on the graves and talk to each other. That certainly won't be the same with my generation, as we move from place to place all the time.

Jackie said...

Such a lovely meditation, Seraphic, with stunning imagery. Thank you for gifting us with this. :-)