Some reflections from the Poland years (2015-2017):
“There was a cross in every direction. And there weren’t just four directions, like now.”
– Wiesław Myśliwski, Stone Upon Stone
In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, there were dozens of people selling candles and flowers at each of the entrances leading into the Lipowa cemetery. It was easy to notice this happening, because this cemetery is right next to the main mall in the city. This reminded me of how Plutarch had praised the Spartan Lycurgus for doing away with superstitions by allowing citizens to bury their dead within the city which, he said, had the effect of making the youth familiar with such sights so that they were neither confounded by death nor fearful of it.
In these days, I observed all of the flowers and candles being placed on the graves in anticipation of the feast days – seeing sisters in their habits scrubbing the graves of the members of their communities who had gone before them, and men raking the leaves between the tombs, and students and graduates decorating with flowers and candles and rosaries the graves of the university’s founder and first rector, Rev. Idzi Radziszewski as well as that of Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – who struck me as among the cemeterary’s leading protagonists.
On All Saints’ Day, my friends and I went again to this cemetery. As we walked, we passed many others who were visiting, walking slowly and reverently. Has anyone ever run through a cemetery, anyway? The setting seems to slow you down, as if to teach that rushing through life will only bring you more quickly to your grave.
I saw a young man holding his grandmother’s arm to assist her. I saw a father carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. I saw an elderly couple sitting across from one another on benches before the graves – the husband taking a photo of his wife on a smartphone. I saw a boy in a wheelchair, staring at a grave with his family surrounding him. And I saw small children playing and smiling, hoping to get a candle or bouquet to place upon a grave or to contribute as part of a larger memorial. This is the most life I have ever witnessed in a cemetery, I marvelled to myself. It is also the most human cemetery I have seen. I glanced at the Latin inscription – Non omnis moriar – not all of me will die, or, I shall not wholly die. And I also thought to myself – not all is death. Among the dead, the living walk, play, talk, laugh, and visit.
Also striking to me was the memorial commemorating the victims of the Katyn massacre in 1940 when the Soviets murdered 22,000 people. Hundreds of candles had been placed in a small square before the modest memorial. Small children placed candles and I thought: this is how Poles cultivate their sense of gravity, solemnity, and history… when even toddlers are learning about the victims of communism.
It was taking some getting used to, this shock of culture. Anyone who has had the experience of deciding to take their religion or culture more seriously can relate to this: the feeling of a hungry soul whose admiration of some ideal begins to become just great enough to overshadow the shame you feel at your own inadequacy before it.
These were my observations and feelings during my first All Saints’ Day in Poland.