The first of November is traditionally when Christians observe All Saints Day, followed the very next day with All Souls Day. These days are not widely celebrated in the US, but if you happen to be in Poland you will see what a big deal can be made of it. Every business closes and people travel great distances to return to their hometowns in the tradition of visiting the graves of their relatives. As an American expat, I once found myself in Warsaw on All Saints Day. Everyone I spoke with was apologetic for the fact that all the typical tourist attractions were closed. In fact, the city bus tours that hotels pitch to their guests had cancelled their regular menu of topical city tours in order to offer one, that which was a tour of two major cemeteries in Warsaw. This meant that if I wanted to be a tourist and see something on my brief visit to Warsaw I had to follow the crowd, and the crowd was headed to the cemeteries.
The first destination on the cemetery tour was Old Powazki Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Warsaw. Long before the cemetery was in view, traffic was being routed by police. It looked like we had arrived at a festival. Pop-up vendors selling candles and wreaths of flowers lined the sidewalks. Crowds of people were walking in all directions, some on a very determined path and others slowly browsing. With only one passageway into the cemetery, the varied speed of pedestrian traffic felt downright urban. We were given a brief history of the cemetery and then we strolled some of the lanes. Every square inch of space accounted for something or someone – large family monuments, statues with religious or secular imagery, crucifixes, angels, a skull and crossbones. It seemed that most graves had some sign of life, be it a candle or flowers. Graves of popular actors or notorious cases of a tragic loss of life warranted a cornucopia of candles, all lit, like a silent vote of support.
Our next destination was the Powazki Military Cemetery. A large part of this cemetery is occupied by graves of Polish soldiers who fell in the ill-fated 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi Germany. The popular graves here are war heroes whose names I do not know and should not attempt to pronounce. By now, the sun was setting and dusk was beginning to set a mood, but what could easily have been eerie was actually quite beautiful. Respectful cemetery visitors delivered flowers and relics, and lit candles encased in colored glass containers glowed low to the ground for as far as the eye could see. Spilling golden leaves carpeted the walking paths. The air was slightly damp and smelled perfectly autumnal and woodsy.
A day of somber reflection left me feeling very peaceful that evening. It’s a nice tradition to close the offices and shops and visit our loved ones who have passed. There’s a pun in here somewhere, but taking part in this national observance made me feel like my feet were firmly planted on the ground. Even if just for a day, I found peace in that.