November 1st and 2nd every year is observed nationally as All Saints’ Day (Dzień Wszystkich Świętych) and All Souls’ Day (Dzień Zaduszny or Dzień Wszystkich Zmarłych) respectively, these two days of the year are dedicated to prayer and paying tribute to the deceased by visiting their graves. Families all over Poland make pilgrimages to the resting places of their relatives. They visit the graves of the departed and lay wreaths, flowers and candles there. As night descends, the country’s graveyards can be seen glowing with the warm light of thousands of candles creating a hushed and respectful ambience of paying an incredibly dignified tribute to the departed.
Visiting the graves of the departed is an important ritual in Polish culture, so important that everyone in the country gets an off day on November 1st (All Saints’ Day) for that.
Like so many customs incorporated into Catholicism, this tradition actually has pagan roots, and was established as a holy day of obligation in 998 to replace the ancient Slavic tradition of ‘Dziady’.
If you live in Poland and you’re not Polish, All Saints’ Day might just like any another holiday, however, it is the day when illuminating Polish cemeteries come alive with love and care, it is the day when you can actually establish a bond with the soul of this beautiful place.
As an expat, I don’t have any family roots or relative of mine resting in the graveyards here to celebrate and commemorate this day, but I did it today because I have always felt a connection with this city, it’s my home away from home. I believe I am also a part of the extended family of people here. So my husband and I took a candle and searched for an empty grave without a candle (it was so difficult to find one but somehow we did), as per the tradition we placed the candle on the grave and said a prayer for its owner.
We visited Krakow’s Rakowicki Cemetery which was illuminated by thousands of candles. Graves and tombs had several carefully and tastefully arranged candles, fresh pots of flowers, reverently placed by family members in remembrance of the dearly departed. It was indeed an awe-inspiring sight. A testament to Polish tradition and their faith in the family. Rakowicki makes a majestic and powerful impact, as many graves there stand up as works of art. Like Paris’s Pere Lachaise, it holds the tombs of many great historical figures. Mausoleums of illustrious families stand side by side with the tombs of artists, soldiers and philosophers. It is the final resting place of more than 450 men buried far from their homes and families—British, Indian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African soldiers and airmen who died in Poland during World War II.
Perhaps not the most light-hearted idea of an outing but we encourage you to get out there, follow the light and visit the graveyards to witness the warmth of love, to capture the scintillating lights of candles on the graves and to appreciate the devotion in the hearts of people. We challenge you to find a forgotten grave, however unlikely and light a candle there.
Kraków’s cemeteries are places of beauty, tranquillity, art and history and well worth a visit.
Rakowicki Cemetery remains open until 10pm on October 31, until the last visitor leaves on November 1 and until 9pm on November 2. You can find directions to the Rakowicki Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, as well as details of all the war dead buried there.