04-11-2001

My favourite walk with my children at this time of year is in Prague's municipal cemetery, just across the road and the tramlines from our flat in Vinohrady. My son Thomas is just learning to read, and he is convinced that all the crosses are in fact the letter "T" and have been put there in honour of him. I haven't tried to disillusion him. I think he'll have plenty of time later in life to grapple with the nature of mortality.

Just at the moment the cemetery is a mass of golds, yellows and browns. The trees have suddenly begun to turn, this year rather later than usual with the mild autumn. There is a delicious sense of melancholy, especially as you go into the depths of the old cemetery, where fading Czech and German inscriptions intersperse, telling us in old-fashioned Habsburgian language of departed husbands and wives, parents and children, nearly all with old-fashioned sounding names - Bozena, Vilhelmina, Borivoj, Ernestina - and angels stand enchained in ivy.

All this sounds rather gloomy, but in fact the cemetery is a thriving place at this time of year. This is the season of "Dusicky" - literally "the little souls" - the affectionate nickname that Czechs have for All Soul's Day on November 2nd. This is the time of year when everyone comes to remember their relatives and loved ones. You see whole families, including small children, busy weeding great grandmother's grave, masses of chrysanthemums sit incongruously in pots amidst the leafy undergrowth and suddenly dozens of stalls, selling flowers and wreathes of all shapes and sizes have emerged on the pavement opposite our flat. But what stand out more than anything else are the candles. At almost every grave a little light is burning, and beneath the communal cross at the heart of the cemetery there are literally hundreds of lights, most of them in little red cups, quivering in the twilight, and creating an autumnal heat-haze between you and the old iron cross. After dark, as you look across to the cemetery from our flat, it's as if you are looking at hundreds of stars fallen to the earth. With a little imagination you can see the "dusicky", the little souls, dancing among the trees. Only in the oldest depths of the cemetery, where the graves go far back into the 19th century, do the candles grow thin on the ground, flickering like solitary street lamps in the outer suburbs of memory.

"Dusicky" isn't the only time when a visit to the cemetery takes on a special significance. At Christmas, many families place a tiny Christmas tree, carefully decorated, on the graves of their nearest and dearest. Last year we had a White Christmas and the trees, combined with the glow of the candles, made for a magical atmosphere on Christmas Day. It's a similar story at Easter time, when the cemetery fills with painted Easter eggs hanging from coloured ribbons. It may all seem rather morbid, but you don't have that feeling when you visit. It takes the gloom away from the place and perhaps even something of the sting of death. Instead of being a place of stone and ivy, the cemetery acquires a layer of vibrant life and you remember that all those names live on in somebody's memory.

04-11-2001