All Soul’s Day: A Day for Death

Today everyone in Poland is out in the cemetaries, carrying flowers and candles to freshly scrubbed graves. The day is an illustration of the way death is ever present in the midst of life, and vice versa…

Today everyone in Poland is out in the cemetaries, carrying flowers and candles to freshly scrubbed graves. The roads are incredibly busy; the heavy traffic began yesterday, with people back to their home towns. Outside cemetaries, police direct the mayhem of hundreds of cars trying to park along the same stretch of road.

Although it is a sad day, bringing up fresh grief for many, it has its own charm. The radio stops the chatter and plays good music for a change, and walking around the graveyards of their home towns people meet their childhood friends that they haven’t seen for years, stop to catch up with each other, and show off their new winter coats (there is always a certain nip in the air). Parents talk to their children about death. There is no avoiding it.

This reminds me of the story in which a grieving woman asks the Buddha how to remove the pain of grief and mourning (for the death of her baby, if I remember rightly). He tells her to go to the village and collect a grain of rice from every house in which no one has died. This is obviously a fruitless task, and asking for and listening to the stories of those living around her brings her to some understanding. She has a full realisation that she is not alone, that no one is. She stops shutting down and fighting her grief. This in itself brings a kind of healing.

And so, we all walk around the graveyard, putting spare candles on overgrown, abandoned graves, flowers on the graves of those we remember and those we don’t — although they share our names. My elder daughter first learnt to strike matches on this day, in this place, a few years ago. We tell the same stories every year about the lives and deaths of distant relatives. Then we get in the car, drive home together and eat warm food. All the graveyards we pass in the early-falling night are shining with tiny lights like heavily populated cities at night, seen from the air.

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