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Halloween at a

Polish Cemetery



alloween overseas can be

tricky. While many countries

have adopted the American-

style trick-or-treating tradition,

at most posts you can’t just put your kid

in a pillowcase with eyeholes, hand him

a plastic pumpkin and send him out to

bother the neighbors.

So Americans in foreign countries

improvise. Since our little spooks are now

in college, and we had no need to haunt

anyone, we naturally decided to spend

Halloween at our current post, Warsaw, in

a cemetery!

Poles celebrate the Slavic Zaduszki,

observed on the Catholic All Saints’ Day,

Nov. 1. Like Halloween’s precursor, the

Celtic Samhain, Zaduszki is rooted in the

pre-Christian belief that the dead wander

the world at this time of year. In this tradi-

tion, Oct. 31 is not a day of silly costumes

and raucous celebration, but one of busy

preparation to receive visiting spirits.

In earlier centuries, Slavic peoples

cleaned and prepared their homes to

receive visiting ancestors on Zaduszki,

leaving offerings of bread and water for

them by the hearth. And they took similar

offerings to the cemeteries, a practice that

has survived to this day.

Kelly Bembry Midura has

accompanied FSO Christo-

pher Midura to seven posts

in Latin America, Africa and

Europe. She blogs about her

adventures at

Zaduszki is an official church and state

holiday in Poland—and a major national

event. Millions of Poles hit the roads to

visit their ancestors’ graves, resulting

in traffic jams and a spike in accidents

despite special bus routes set up to

accommodate pilgrims.

We had heard that the Polish grave-

yards are a must-see for the three days

starting Oct. 31, so on Halloween we

made our way to Wilanów Cemetery on

the outskirts of Warsaw.

There crowds of people were busy

sweeping and scrubbing elaborately

carved tombstones until they shone in the

pale northern afternoon sun. Many of the

large marble family vaults were com-

pletely covered in flowers, candles and

Catholic knick-knacks sold by “pop-up”

vendors on surrounding streets.

It was clear who is in charge of

maintaining tradition: We sawmany a

stern babcia (grandmother) directing

a harassed-looking husband or several

adult children in proper tomb-cleaning


Polish cemeteries are, in fact, ruled by

old ladies: I have never passed a grave-

yard here without seeing several babcias

strolling around or tidying family grave


This being Warsaw, the shadow of

World War II is always present. A large

section of Wilanów Cemetery is devoted

to the thousands of Poles who died in the

1944 Warsaw Uprising. These graves were

also fully decorated. In fact, it is custom-

ary to take care of


the graves in a

cemetery on Zaduszki, so that even those

souls without relatives in attendance are

not forgotten.

Monuments to Polish victims of the

Nazis are not confined to cemeteries, but

are found throughout the city. Most boast

a bouquet or candle; but for Zaduszki,

they all get a full cleaning and are elabo-

rately decorated.

Nov. 1 is a festival of sorts. Whatever

a visiting family might require at any

cemetery is provided by the same pop-up

street vendors, whose inventory includes

everything from grilled kielbasa to toys for

entertaining tired children.

Families visit and picnic around their

family vaults. It reminds me of the annual

family reunions I attended in the Ameri-

can South as a child—but with both living

and dead kinfolk welcome.

Most Poles return to work the next day,

but the hundreds of thousands of candles

remain lit for three nights, through All

Souls’ Day on Nov. 2. The cemeteries are

so bright that a glow can be seen on the

horizon when approaching them.

As the chilly October evening fell at

Wilanów Cemetery, it became a truly

beautiful and mysterious place: alight

with candles and crowded with visitors

praying and conversing in hushed tones.

Quite a contrast to our own Halloween

tradition, it was an experience I feel very

lucky to have had.