All Souls Day in the Czech Republic

02-11-2006

All Souls Day - the day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away - has great significance in the Czech Republic. For the past few days Czechs have been visiting cemeteries across the country - often traveling hundreds of kilometers - to lay flowers and light candles at the graves of their relatives and loved ones. Dusicky - or "Souls" - as it is called in Czech is an annual pilgrimage that has taken place since pagan times.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK Czechs may be one of the most secular nations in Europe - but they mark All Souls Day with something close to a religious fervor. Whole families come to pay their respects to the dead - leading young children by the hand and telling them what it is all about. In this way the tradition has been perpetuated for centuries. On November 2nd cemeteries are left awash with flowers and flickering candles and you would be hard put to find a soul which had been "forgotten". In today's materialistic world this is a spiritual holiday that has deep roots. On the eve of All Souls Day I took a turn around the Czech Republic's most famous cemetery Vysehrad - the resting place of many Czech greats - including composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, writers Karel Capek and Jan Neruda or opera diva Emma Destinova. There were flickering candles everywhere and people were tending to their family graves. Anna Cermakova explained that while she visited the family grave regularly - Dusicky was always special.

"It's a day of remembrance. Not just here but at home as well. I keep a candle burning all day long and think about all the people who passed through my life and were in some way important. Not just relatives but departed friends and colleagues. I remember the good times we had - even small things like how we talked and laughed over a cup of coffee - and I keep that candle burning for them all day."

Although Anna tended mainly to her family grave she had brought a few candles to put on the graves of the Czech greats whom she admires. A tour of the cemetery with many brief stops is part of this special day. Others are doing the same thing - Marie Horalova takes me to her favourite spots at Vysehrad.

"Here we are. This is the grave of Mikolas Ales -the great Czech painter and illustrator. I have lit candles on this grave ever since I was a child. You see, as children we had a school textbook illustrated by him and on Dusicky so many children came to light candles that his grave was always a blaze of light. There were literally hundreds of them. And I always stop to pour water into a stone bird bath that's on Karel Capek's grave. You see in some interview he once said he had seen this on his travels around Italy and how he too would like birds to come to his grave for a drink. So I and a few friends always keep it filled for him"

Although she is eighty - Marie moves with the times. Last week she bought her great grand-children Halloween masks and lanterns. But, she hopes that Halloween will never replace All Souls Day in the Czech calendar.

"I think that the tradition of Dusicky is very strong and I hope that respect for our ancestors will keep it alive. As for Halloween - well, why not. We can adopt this Celtic tradition as well, especially since children seem to like it so much. But I would be very sorry to see it replace our own tradition of Dusicky."

02-11-2006