When my husband and I planned our European late-October/early-November honeymoon, and arranged to be in Poland during the feast of All Saints Day and the memorial of All Souls, I had no idea what a moving, incredible experience I was in for.
We had decided to make Poland a significant part of our honeymoon trip because my husband Thomas’s entire extended family lives in Poland. In Poland the food is filling, the churches are breathtaking, and the language is dizzying, but something I wasn’t expecting to experience was their profound devotion to their deceased loved ones.
The sense of Catholic tradition, family ties, and honoring the dead are especially strong in Poland when compared to other parts of Europe, as well as the United States. Whenever I walk into a cemetery in the United States, I might see some silk or real flowers next to a few of the graves, and perhaps 1 or 2 other lone visitors, but in general American cemeteries are pretty quiet places where nature quickly takes its toll: with weeds, leaves and vines crowding in on the headstones.
In Poland, families and even friends take especially seriously the duty of remembering and respecting their departed loved ones, especially around the feast of All Souls Day, which they commemorate together on November 1st alongside the feast of All Saints. Potted flowers and beautiful glass covered candles and lanterns are commonplace in Polish cemeteries, but these signs of love and remembrance reach a new level entirely around All Saints day.
Visiting Departed Family in Wroclaw
The day before All Saints - All Hallows Eve - I was able to accompany my husband, along with his aunt and uncle with whom we were staying, to visit and tend to the graves of 2 of their family members in Wroclaw.
One thing that struck me was that many of the graves had a small bench or stool in front of them. These benches allow people to take extended time to come and sit, reflect, and pray for their departed relatives and friends. Many of these benches also double as storage containers, so that the family can store small tools and bags. These were used to rake up leaves on top or around the gravestone, remove aggressive weeds and vines, and generally make the area clean and tidy. The tender care with which Thomas’s aunt and uncle tended to these resting places moved me deeply, and inspired in me a greater appreciation for the Polish people’s reverent remembrance of those who preceded them to eternity.
I was also very touched to learn that my in-laws had begun tending to the very small, simple grave to the right of their gravesites because they noticed it had been neglected for some time. They think that maybe the person was poor and also doesn’t have any family left living in that town to visit her, and they didn’t want this person’s resting place to fall into disarray. During this visit, Thomas's aunt and uncle reserved some greenery and a candle for their unknown "neighbor".
This small but loving deed gave me a striking example of the beautiful mystery of the communion of saints and the mystical body of Christ, coming together to serve one another even in the littlest things. I am sure my in-laws' gesture has not gone unseen by Christ and the soul of this person who has been the recipient of their care. Perhaps she is now interceding on their behalf.
Krakow, Poland: The Mother of All Saints Day Remembrance and Celebration
Krakow’s breathtaking Wawel Cathedral and Castle, Wieliczka Salt Mine, and quaint city squares made it a natural stop on our trip.
However, Krakow is also special because it is an epicentre of Polish tradition, especially in regards to celebrating the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls and remembrance of the dead.
Around the feast of All Saints, Krakow’s city cemeteries are more crowded than a beach on a summer day. Dozens and dozens of small street vendors selling flowers and the traditional glass encased candles have no need to compete; there are more than enough family and friends coming to the cemetery to give every seller a solid day’s wage.
Thomas and I walked towards Rakowicki Cemetery after dinner. Because the sun had already completely set, I was shocked to witness the amount of light that was radiating from the cemetery. Although there were a few lone street lamps in the cemetery, the majority of the light was coming from the sheer number of lit candles placed on the graves.
While we had wanted to visit the cemetery to pray for the Holy Souls in general, we also had a meaningful personal purpose to be there: to visit the grave of Thomas’s godmother, Ewa, who had acted as a second mother to Thomas while he was growing up.
It took us a solid 10-15 minutes to find her gravesite, even with a map and directions, because of the immense size of the cemetery, (almost unbelievable considering it’s in the middle of a sizable city) the number of people visiting, and the enormous amount of graves present. At last we found Ewa's grave, and we were happy to see that people had already visited; there were several large potted flowers and candles already there.
We took some time to pray, and I read a prayer-letter I had written to Ewa, asking her to pray for us and to show me how to be as loving and caring to Thomas as she had been. Finally, I surprised Thomas by pulling a secret package out of my backpack: I had packed a small bouquet of the red, coral, and white silk flowers we had used at our wedding reception. I placed them on Ewa’s grave to signify her presence with us in our marriage even though she wasn’t able to physically be at our wedding to celebrate with us.
A Unique Way to Show Admiration for Celebrities
As we made our long and winding way back out of the cemetery, we came upon some gravesites that literally had dozens or even hundreds of candles. Leaving a candle at the gravesite of a historically important person, a celebrity, or a religious leader and offering up a prayer for them is a distinctly Polish way to show admiration for someone who made an impact on Polish history or culture. One such adorned grave was that of Jan Matejko, one of the most famous painters in all of Polish history.
As we neared the exit, we came upon a final very powerful site where hundreds of candles surrounded a simple stone plaque exclaiming “Ofiarom komunizmu.” Thankfully Thomas speaks Polish, and, clearly moved, told me that the plaque said this site was dedicated simply to “All Victims of Communism” - the thousands of Poles who were killed, tortured, or wrongfully imprisoned during the Communist occupation of Poland from 1945-1989. Taking a moment to reflect here impacted us greatly, as Thomas's own parents narrowly escaped the Communist regime in Poland in the 1980s.
The commemoration of All Saints and All Souls isn’t “just” a Catholic celebration in Poland. It is a moment to come together as a people who have suffered so much throughout the centuries, and especially in the 20th century, to remember those who gave their very lives fighting for the political and religious freedom of their people.
Bringing Back Traditions
As we again approach the feast of All Saints and memorial of All Souls in this current year, I have a few things from my experience in Poland that I want to try and incorporate into our family traditions surrounding these special feasts. I hope you will join me!
- Pray for family. I want to pray more intentionally during that time for the souls of my deceased family members. I want to especially pray in gratitude for those who made my life here in the United States possible. On my dad’s side, my ancestors came to the United States from Czechoslovakia, and several died tragically in a flood as they made their way to the Midwest to settle and establish a Catholic community there. Their trials and sacrifices contributed to the hard-fought foundation for my life here.
- Pray for those who inspire you. Do you have a favorite composer, artist, or writer who has had a significant impact on your life, particularly your faith life? Take a moment to pray for their soul, and in thanksgiving for their influence in your heart and life.
As you pray for their soul, take a moment to enjoy their works that day! Listen to Handel’s Messiah, look up your favorite artwork of the life of Christ by Caravaggio, or re-read that absolutely genius passage from G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis.
The Polish Madonna by Piotr Stachiewicz - One of my favorite Marian images; click the image to purchase!
How does your family remember the Holy Souls? Share in the comments below!