Souls and Saints alike–November 1st

While living in Hungary, I had the chance to participate in their traditional fall festivities and holidays. At a time when American kids are dressing up in costumes and gathering candy or  being mischievous—throwing eggs, and who knows what else—Hungarian children are learning about the American traditions, but usually only reporting on them as a lesson in American studies.  In Hungary, the stores aren’t advertising candy for sale, rather candles for sale, to be put on the graves and monuments of dead relatives and notable Hungarians in cemeteries around the country on November 1.  Traffic to the cemeteries is quite congested, as is parking.  Well-lit booths selling candies and memorials, flowers and other small items of interest outside the cemetery gates.

Candles illuminate cemeteries on November 1 as families honor those who have passed.

I went to a large cemetery in Kecskemet, where crowds were meandering through walkways, stopping to look at graves and to place and light candles where family members are buried. The larger graves look like concrete or stone beds with the grave marker as a headboard.  The candles are placed on the stone bed for those buried there. Other families have what looks like a set of mailboxes on a post—which are used to hold cremains of relatives. Strangely, the names of people still living are often displayed on their box, with the “expiration date” to be added when that person’s urn is placed inside.  Each box in the unit has a candle holder for this annual memorial celebration.  

Classical music was playing on speakers and could be heard throughout the cemetery.  A central location featured a table covered with votive candles to be lit by those who were not able to get to their own family gravesites.  I lit a couple in honor of my grandparents, and serendipitously, the classical music I associate with each of my grandparents was playing when I was nearby those candles. So perhaps they were remembering me in sound, while I remembered them with light.

Other areas of the cemetery included a large grassy area where ashes of the dead could be scattered. Candles were placed around that area to memorialize those whose remains were there.  Statues of famous Hungarians buried in the cemetery, or monuments recognizing soldiers or victims of war and revolutions were not forgotten.  Many people contributed candles to those markers to honor the dead they represented.  One area was dedicated to the graves of a group of delegates who had died in a plane crash while traveling on a mission abroad.

Once the responsibility of remembering loved ones who have passed has been fulfilled, the family members go home to enjoy a meal together, which I equated to American Thanksgiving—a time to celebrate what we have and are thankful for.  

This tradition is one that we see in America on Memorial Day—for soldiers who have died, and are being honored. But not as much today for our own family members.  In the past, cemeteries were a place for picnics and Sunday visits.  However, Americans don’t like to think about death and dying, or getting old.  So cemeteries are avoided for the most part, until necessary.  

The Hungarian tradition is not unique to Hungary, as so many are familiar with the Mexican Day of the Dead, but Asian tradition includes burning paper replicas of money or gifts of value to offer to dead relatives to make their afterlife more pleasurable, and to honor them in death.  

Death is a part of life and many other cultures, while not necessarily embracing the idea, give the reality of it a place in their traditions so as not to forget those who are gone, and not to forget that there is a finality to our earthly existence, yet a continued connection to our time here in life.