The Comfort of Mortality

Dusicky04

It is the time of year for spirits. Nowadays, however, I remember souls rather than celebrate specters. Halloween used to be my most favorite of holidays. Over the many years of living overseas, my tradition had dwindled to consuming sweets and watching vintage horror films. Sometimes I’d carve a jack o’lantern, if I could find one. In spite of retailers trying to market Halloween to Eastern Europe, it has not caught on. When I moved to Poland in 2007, I experienced, for the first time, their tradition of All Saint’s and All Soul’s Days. Celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, it is a time for families to come together and remember the departed. Although it is originally a religious holiday, it is also observed by non-believers. People usually visit several cemeteries, sometimes driving long distances to different cities or villages. Graves are adorned with candles and flowers. The living gather together for meals and nostalgia. I was spellbound as I meandered that little old cemetery in Poznan. I was raised Catholic, so I’d heard of these days, but they go unnoticed in America. Even if people wanted to leave flowers, candles, and other gifts, they are often prohibited for the sake of tidiness.

Dusicky01

During my years in Budapest, I was only able to visit a cemetery once on this holiday. The weather was often too wet or windy. I visited the vast Kerepesi cemetery during the daytime. That part of the city is not the nicest. The densely wooded area way at the back is said to be inhabited by homeless people. The police that patrolled the area warned me to be careful. There had been attacks. The day was sunny and unseasonably warm. Golden leaves shimmered in the sunlight. I felt like an imposter as I observed reunions and contemplations. There was too much light. I took comfort in their humble acceptance of mortality.

Dusicky03

In 2013, my first All Saint’s Day in Bratislava, I pried myself from my bed, where I had been doing battle with a nasty head cold for days. I had just finished watching Plan 9 from Outer Space. B horror/sci-fi flicks were all that remained of my Halloween tradition. I crammed myself into a packed bus that was destined for Slávičie údolie cemetery, located in an outer district of Bratislava.

The sprawling cemetery was ablaze. The early evening sky was a lavender gray haze reminiscent of 1970s horror movies. A liquid, inky hue. Waves of flickering, multi-colored orbs blanketed the rolling hills. Mortals drifted down the serpentine rows and cobblestone paths. I wandered into the farthest reaches, lost in reverie. In the West, death is considered a depressing, negative subject. I come from a practical family. We make arrangements, so that it will be easier for others when the time comes. My grandmother has been clearing out her house for thirty years. The things that remain have the names of those who will receive them written on the back. My husband finds this practice baffling. I will not be put in the ground, I told him. My mother and my siblings know the hidden place where I will seep into the Earth with the rain. My husband is against cremation. We go back and forth: I will die before you. No, I will die before you.

Dusicky05

These days, there is much talk of life extension technologies. Transhumanism, nanotechnology, biotechnology. Immortality may be a reality for the generation born today, if they submit to merging physically with the technology. Most of us alive today will have digital immortality, whether we want it or not. Nearly everything we share is stored someplace. And shareshareshare we do. With a fervor that borders on hysterical. Don’t forget me! At this point, even those of us who are privacy conscious couldn’t erase ourselves completely, no matter how hard we might try. Who would have ever thought that being forgotten would become a luxury?

I prefer the treasure of impermanence to an infinity of empty time to fill. The magic of the ephemeral to the lassitude of endless tomorrows.

There is a scene in Transcendent Man, the documentary about Singularity cheerleader Ray Kurzweil, that I will never forget. Using his memories, artificial intelligence, and his father’s journals, Kurzweil intends to resurrect a replica of his father one day. A soul is unimportant, it seems. He himself plans to be immortal. Near the end of the film, as he drives by a cemetery, he says, “I always thought it was useless to keep all of these dead, rotting bodies around, but now it’s useful from a practical point of view to have a place where some of their DNA is accessible.” Decaying corpses will become crops ripe for harvest.

While I was wandering and wondering, night had fallen. The only humans visible were far shadows. The only sounds were the sizzling of candle wicks burning dry, the crackling of hot glass as it expanded, and my footsteps. The ground below my feet was lumpy, uneven. I could no longer discern where the tombstones began. I took slow, careful steps. A twisted ankle would have been a nightmare. A black, warm mass appeared in front of me. I gasped and froze, but it was only a man. He excused himself and passed by. I shook my head and giggled as I made my way towards the blazing monument at the entrance gate. Who would have ever thought I could feel at ease drifting around a graveyard alone in the dark?

Dusicky02

The following year, I finally stopped celebrating Halloween altogether. I visited the more intimate Ondrejský cemetery in the center of Bratislava, which was a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. I left my camera behind. My backpack was instead stuffed with red votive candles. The fog was thicker that year. It oozed from the sky, veiling the world in a milky haze. Families strolled the level pathways, as if through a park on a lazy summer afternoon. Adults pushed strollers, while young children darted in and out of the rows, pausing to gaze at the flickering lights, stuffed animals, and other pretty offerings. The graves in Ondrejský are widely spaced and often elaborate in style. Amid the angels and sculptures, some cenotaphs lay naked or moss-covered, their epitaphs erased by time. I strode towards them, into the murkiest corners, with my offerings to the forgotten.

**All photos are of Slávičie údolie cemetery in Bratislava, Slovakia.**

73 thoughts on “The Comfort of Mortality

  1. J’aime beaucoup visiter les cimetières: pour moi ce sont des endroits apaisants et cela nous dit beaucoup sur les relations que les gens du coins on avec leurs morts et la mort en général. Ici dans l’ouest effectivement la mort est un sujet peu abordé (tabou) alors que c’est la seule certitude que nous avons dans la vie. Les photos sont très belles et très… vivantes. Oui: nous sommes mortels et je pense qu’on serait bien encombré avec une immortalité pour laquelle nous ne sommes pas faits.
    Geneviève

    • Salut Geneviève – moi aussi, j’adore faire les balades dans les cimetières pendant toute l’année. Quand ma mère m’a rendu visite en France, elle a voulu absolument visiter un cimetière. Aux USA, les cimetières sont souvent très moderns, uniforms, et steriles. C’est dommange que cette tradition de Toussaint est consideré, dans les pays de l’ouest, comme fete religieuse et donc passé.

  2. Oh I wish I were as organised as your grandmother! And it would be nice to be more comfortable with death. A very close friend died last week. She seemed so calm about her imminent demise.

    • I’m very sorry to hear about your friend. My father was also very calm and pragmatic about his impending departure. I guess when you know your time is about up, you just accept it and prepare. I doubt there’s anyone who is not at least somewhat apprehensive about dying, but avoiding the topic altogether does not help.

      • I know I am apprehensive, and my parents who are in their nineties are incredibly agitated by the topic. And then there is the whole burial vs cremation issue which you mentioned. In the meantime, light those candles and be blessed. 🙂

  3. Wonderfully thought-provoking Julie. I am a born cynic but there is something endlessly fascinating about festivals of the dead. This post got me thinking of our time on Corsica, an island where the dead are thought to return to their homes on All Soul’s Day – “Each family rings the church bell to summon their spirits. The fires in the houses are left burning, and the doors open, to welcome the dead”. The island is also home to the mazzeri dream-hunters. I think you should go.
    Many thanks for a great post – I will now be watching Transcendent Man.

    • Thanks, Robin. Corsica sounds fascinating. I’m glad you will make the effort to watch the film. It gives real insight into the attitudes of some of the scientists who are making decisions that have serious consequences for the future. I really hope I’m gone before some of them get their wish, and it reaffirmed my decision to be cremated and dispersed.

  4. An atmospheric post.

    Though always a thing in Scotland, hallowe’en wasn’t really observed in the English Midlands when I was a boy, becoming more popular in the 1970s and 80s, when it spread across the Atlantic from the US through TV and films, rather than drifting south of the border from Scotland.

    All Saint’s Day wasn’t observed much beyond the church door by Anglicans either. But I did observe it in Norway, whenever I was in Oslo visiting relatives. All the Norwegian aunts and uncles I remember from my childhood lie in cemeteries now, as has one cousin for the last couple of years, not to forget the grandmother, who visited us in England a few times decades ago.

    I’m not particularly religious, nevertheless, I was happily surprised to see the large numbers of people visiting the graves of their families, placing candles and flowers to show they had been. Generally, it seems a very good idea to mark the lives of loved ones each year and I felt spiritually uplifted by it.

    • It’s good to know that Norwegians also do this. It is indeed an uplifting experience to be among so many who are paying tribute to their departed loved ones. That’s why, even though I am a stranger in these countries, I always try to go. This year, it will be interesting to compare the Czech traditions with those of the countries I’ve previously lived in.

  5. Around here (North Sea cost of Germany), Halloween is very slowly starting to gain traction. There have been, over the years, plenty of Americans coming through the region who have helped to share and promote this day. I found myself chuckling a little at two points in your post. One, your grandmother clearing out her home for the last 30 years put me in mind of my own grandfather, who started talking about what would happen when he died when I was eleven years old (he died when I was thirty). The other part that brought a smile to my face was the love for horror movies – I used to celebrate the day the same way 🙂 I would stock up on popcorn and drinks, and rent enough movies to make a 24-hour marathon – it was the only day in the year I would watch such movies, I guess I needed to get it out of my system. B-movies are one thing I didn’t get so much into on Halloween – that I got when I watched Mystery Science Theater – and it didn’t matter if I had already seen the movie before.

    What you wrote about merging our bodies with technology and farming corpses and digging up DNA, however, was a true and genuine fright; and if there is anything that will give me nightmares going into this holiday, this may very well be it. I believe very strongly in the dignity and sanctity of the human body and soul; and my beliefs with regards to this are somewhat complex. What you wrote leaves two options that I can see: humans being resurrected with no soul (which would in my opinion remove their humanity in everything but appearance); or a high-tech resurrection somehow or another calling a soul back from the other side to reside in its body once more. I find both options utterly horrifying.

    • Hello there – B horror movies are still my guilty pleasure. It’s harmless. 🙂

      I am also horrified by the idea of being resurrected from DNA. Without my permission. What really angers me is the entitlement these people feel. As if they’ve got the right to just take it and do what they want with it. But it’s not surprising, given that Kurzweil works for Google, a company that has stockpiled our data for who knows what purposes. Sorry, I do not believe that they’ve got our best interests at heart. I’ve boycotted all of their services for years. If you get the chance, you should watch Transcendent Man. It’s important to hear what is being planned, from the mouths of the scientists themselves.

      • Google … like some governments, with a desire to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. I’ll give the Kurzweil movie a watch – it might be perfect for Halloween, if I can get my hands on it!

          • I had a look at the film – enough now to know for certain that I will either rent or buy it in the near future, perhaps still Halloween 🙂 Thank you for this again, and I will definitely be letting you know what my thoughts are about this very soon 🙂

          • So, I couldn’t wait (actually, it turns out I have other plans for Halloween that I can’t fit the movie into); so I gave the movie a watch this evening. I would agree with one of the interviewees in the movie, in that Kurzweil’s predictions themselves may turn out to be true; but not necessarily within the same time line Kurzweil has predicted. The problem I see with Kurzweil’s mathematics, in particular his beloved exponent, is that he is relying on data that reflects how technology has grown within the conditions it has enjoyed up to this point. If the conditions change, so does the development of technology – and our world is, if anything, very mutable. Like Yoda said, “Always in motion the future is.”

            As to the predictions themselves, I have to wonder at the efforts we have made, throughout history, to defeat death. There are two possibilities represented by death: there is something that comes after; or there is nothing. If there is nothing, as Kurzweil obviously fears, then there is also nothing to fear or feel sad about. If there is something, then why live forever in fear of it? I see this sort of fear as simply bizarre – a vision accentuated by Kurzweil’s daily pill count of 200.

            The things we’ve already figured out, and the direction we are taking them, are in all honesty starting to frighten me. If our minds should ever interface with the Internet – which I do not think is an impossibility – then we are really not far off from thought police and other elements of dystopian visions of the future. Thank you very much for recommending the movie to me – it has given me much to think about; and I can honestly say that I am not quite done reacting to the movie and its implications.

          • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the film. I appreciate your perspective very much. Yes, there were a lot of little ironies in the movie – the 200 pills a day to reprogram his biology, especially. The idea of injecting nano computers into the brain, and downloading software updates, seems especially dystopian. So easy to just program the desired thought processes on them. Not that the scientists have that intention. They are usually unable to judge the intentions of those who would seek to exploit their work.

            Just yesterday, an acquaintance told me that he was looking forward to these new advancements. He is also someone who does not believe in a soul. We are simply complex chemical processes. When I told him that he will survive the future and I will be one of those unevolved who will die off, he looked sad. If some people want to use this technology, fine. But I’m worried about it being forced on us. If it comes down to that, I will gladly move on to the next dimension.

            Happy Hallowe’en, Stormwise. 🎃

          • I thought it was also interesting that there was a focus placed on Kurzweil having cured himself of diabetes. I thought this interesting because, among other things, I have also managed this same feat. I did not try to reprogram my biology, though – I’m not smart enough for such an undertaking – I chose the simple road, and reprogrammed my daily agenda. Oddly enough, when I stopped obsessing over the computer screen and started moving around more, I healed.

            I think Kurzweil is an honest sort of person, who is truly dedicated to the notion of helping others to overcome disabilities in life. At least, this is how he came across to me in the movie; which I will admit isn’t really enough to form a good estimation of the man. However, there are questions he doesn’t seem to ask or address. First and foremost is that he does not do enough to present a convincing argument that death itself is just a disability to be cured; rather than a vital and necessary part of life. All things end in Nature – why should we not, as well? True, his life may very well be something he wants to perpetuate until the end of time – he works for Google, holds all sorts of patents, and has plenty of advantage when it comes to finances, education, prestige, etc. For the average person in the Western world, who may or may not even have a full-time job (or may have to work at two jobs to make ends meet), a normal lifetime of doing this is enough … how about a system in which people who are suddenly able to live forever have to work at their jobs forever (or at least until one of the AI’s Kurzweil predicts takes that away, as well). Will money be something that is eliminated in Kurzweil’s future? It was in Gene Roddenberry’s; but as much as I revere the Star Trek universe, it remains a work of science fiction. If one government should get ahead of the others when it comes to developing ‘super intelligence,’ will that mean war; or will said government, out of its own benevolence, also share this technology with people from other countries that they may be at war or in some other form of competition with? When super-intelligent humans come into existence, how might they treat those among us who would prefer to not live forever as they do? Would we be victims of our own inhibited intelligence, in need of a cure? Would this process even be voluntary at all?

            The other thing I find striking about all of this, and I have seen it time and again when it comes to inventions and technology in different ares, is that so much emphasis is placed on being smart and intelligent. Where is the emphasis on wisdom? I do not discount the value of intellect – not at all – but it should work in tandem with wisdom, and technologies that assume a degree of charity and generosity of spirit possessed by all the financial and political powers that hold a leash on the world, strike me as being very unwise.

            Thank you again for opening my eyes to all of this – and thank you very much for the Hallowe’en wishes (I was starting to wonder whether or not I was the only person outside of Scotland who knew about the apostrophe in that word!) 🙂 I wish the same for you and yours!

  6. I love this tradition, the way to honor the dead, and the photos are incredibly beautiful, Julie. I used to fear death. I had an older sister who would go visit my grandmother’s grave site when she came home, and I thought it was especially creepy. I was a teenager.

    Now, I get it. I live about an hour from where my parents are buried, and every time I’m anywhere near, I stop and spend some time there. It is a peaceful setting that overlooks the valley where I grew up. I meditate, talk to them, cry. It is so beneficial.

    I used to joke about cremation. Living in a very biased Mormon community, I said that I wanted my ashes spread out over the temple in Salt Lake, just as spite. Later, I was sure I wanted them deposited in the ocean.

    Now…not important. I just don’t want the hypocrisy of a funeral. It’s in our will. We told our kids to just put us in a cigar box on a shelf, our spirit will always be a part of them.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. ❤️

  7. “I prefer the treasure of impermanence to an infinity of empty time to fill. The magic of the ephemeral to the lassitude of endless tomorrows.”
    I read these lines a few times. Lovely. Me too!
    The Japanese have wonderful rituals around the dead – in August. Lanterns and fire – light in darkness seems a theme. Kyoto was a wonderful place to be – always – but I loved “Obon” in August – a time to honor your ancestors. All very jolly.

  8. A delightful reflection, Julie. I have to say I like the idea of taking a moment to remember those who have come and gone much more than the rote collection of candies. I hope the commercialization of Halloween is resisted… And I liked what you wrote about the ephemeral and the eternal. Somehow I think the eternal is found in the ephemeral. The eternal for me is not an endless canvas of time to be filled, but a captivating instant that never burns out.

    I remember reading one of Kurzweil’s books and being so uncertain of the meaning of things in such a future. If there is a simulation of me running on a computer somewhere, is it me? Is self-awareness merely an effect? Or is it profoundly real…? Staying in touch with the ephemeral, with the richness of history, seems to illuminate for me the organic nature of our living presence. Maybe this world is an illusion, but it feels there is a root of us planted deeply in the timeless-transitory flickering ground of phenomena, from which we all draw nourishment.

    Peace
    Michael

    • Thank you, Michael. I hope the commercialization of Halloween over here is resisted, too. I’ve never participated in it, except to buy some candy. But I don’t do that anymore. 🙂 Thank you for your thoughts about the eternal/ephemeral. You always give me something new to ponder.

  9. I appreciate that you considered this topic out loud with and for us;also, the images are beautiful. (Also, also, I share your love of vintage/”B” horror movies.:)) I’ve thought a lot about Western medicine and our unwillingness to simply die when the body says; not good for us, and certainly not good for the planet. Your readers might be interested in the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which of course you can Google. It’s possible to die in accordance with one’s principles, as well as to live in such a way.

    • Vintage horror movies, no matter how bad the special effects are, are so much more fun to watch than the truly disturbing gorefests produced today. I DuckDuckGo’d (I shun Google) your movement. Very selfless of you all. I’m not so sure such efforts will be necessary if we continue the way we’re going. 😉

  10. Thank you for a nice text. I’m impressed by the pictures: it’s just like in Mexico’s day (night) of the dead, with people gathering at the cemeteries. With offrends, (Offrandes?) candles…
    An amazing convergence miles and miles away.
    (Plan 9 from out of space? 🙂 Come on! Then you followed with The creature from the black lake?)
    Be good Julie.

    • Hi Brian – I can imagine the ambiance in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. Maybe I will experience it one day.

      Yep. Plan 9 from Outer Space and unapologetic about it! 😀 I have the Creature from the Black Lagoon on my hard drive. I’d place it in another category than Plan 9. The underwater scenes are truly beautiful, and I like the interaction of the characters. Thanks for reminding me. I think I’ll watch it again.

      • No apologies. I love both “flicks” and many, many B-series movies. Which puts me at odds with my family. Have fun with the black lagoon. (Do I have it somewhere?)
        Día de muertos? I did a post last year. I may do another now. Need to go to the centre for material. 🙂

  11. Maybe because it doesn’t belong to our culture, but Halloween is no big deal for me. However, we celebrate together with my family the All Saints’ Day on 1st November and the 2nd November the All Souls’ Day. We take lunch together and then we bring flowers to the cemeteries. I don’t like the fact that many people think about their beloved departed only especially for this occasion, but for me, it’s a commemoration with many meanings.

  12. I so love the sincerity and vulnerability in your words. When I read your posts, I feel like my emotions are in a safe place, as if I’m lying in a soft patch of leaves.

  13. A sensitive and thoughtful post for the season, Julie.
    It’s time to come down, to reflect and remind and to relax. We can be happy to have four seasons, that there is one for calmness. Since the last weekend we have wintertime in Germany, that means, it’s dark at 7 pm now, soon at 6 pm.
    The lights – also at the cemeteries – help to get over the dark time.
    And since several years the Germans have also Halloween 🙂
    Have a Great Tuesday, Julie.
    Best wishes
    Ulli

    • Thank you, Ulli. I love living in a place that has four seasons. It’s dark at 5pm in Prague now, since last weekend. And the days will grow shorter still. The dark season has its own special charm. Happy Halloween 🎃 and All Saint’s/Soul’s.

  14. The prospect of living forever is a very scary one, Julie. Much worse than a few spooks on Halloween! You made me smile with the comment about your grandma. My husband’s auntie lived to 98 and must have spent half of them ‘getting rid of things’ so someone else wouldn’t have to. She was a lovely old character. 🙂
    I’ve not been in a cemetery at All Saints but I do think they’re beautiful places, abroad. Your photos are so atmospheric. As close as I can come is being in Krakow on an anniversary of Pope John Paul. I never saw so many candles in my life.

  15. Thought-provoking and informative, come d’habitude, Julie! I’ve never felt happy about Hallowe’en, although with young children I dove in and helped them make the most of it … even dressing as a witch to answer our door and hand out treats. I have always admired the celebrations of All Saints/Souls in Europe as it is such a celebration of bringing family together and bringing a life to the cemeteries that, as you point out, seems to be missing in the west, for the most part. I’m in complete agreement with you about cremation and I believe that souls live on forever. Putting bodies in the ground really is for those left behind and it saddens me when I see graves that are so old there is no one left to care. I’m off to find Transcendent Man ~ you are creating a following for him! 🙂

    • Thank you, Patricia. I feel the same way about those old, neglected graves, especially the ones where the names are no longer visible. Hope you find the movie enlightening.

  16. Your title says it all Julie, the comfort of mortality. Such warmth in your gorgeous photos and curiosity in your words about the love that leaves us in one form but stays with us forever.

  17. Looks like a lot has been said on this already! You triggered a lot on life, in life, about life, in discussing the end, without really saying it, pointed to it. Very well written, Much admired the read, Thank you for posting this! Had to laugh out loud : “Who would have ever thought that being forgotten would become a luxury?” >ToLife< Tru .

  18. Last week we were in Bratislava and Budapest, despite that fact that it wasn’t Halloween and we didn’t go to any cemetery, but I thought of you and was somewhat sorry that I could meet you.:) I must say we enjoyed the colourful surrounding a lot and I also love the atmosphere you convey with your pictures.
    Concerning technology I must say that I have the impression that despite the fact that we are somewhat registered everywhere we are not really remembered. I have recently gone through the few pictures I still have from my parents and sisters and they are somehow more precious to me than all this huge quantity of the newly made pictures. Hoping that you are well, dear Julie, I wish you a pleasant Halloween. Martina

    • Hi Martina – I hope you enjoyed your visit to these cities. You know if I had still been in Bratislava, I would have met you for sure! Your comment about being registered, but not remembered is really brilliant and so true. It seems like the more we share, the less people feel the need to savor it.

  19. Absolutely true. As a younger reader I find that my generation is way too caught up in the sense of immortality and permanence, and fail to just live and enjoy the moment. It is a very sad thing.

  20. My dear friend, I do enjoy your posts – this is the third time around. My father passed 4 years ago October 25th. That was the same day that I forged a new path, a new beginning. Dad and I were on new journeys, separate, but together. There is a subtle, but impenetrable, line between our realities. I love your title – “The Comfort of Mortality.” The comfort of being mortal, of experiencing love, joy, hope, loss & grieving. One of my favourite quotes, which has been in my mind, these past few days, was by Thornton Wilder, “The Bridge of San Luis Ray.” There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Happy Halloween. I am sitting in a cafe watching the children come through in costume, asking for treats. Ah, it is marvelous to know that we are mortal…

  21. Julie dear …your stories touch me deeply , this one in such a lovely way like a memory taking hold of my heart …I live on Cemetery Road … Wishing you could walk to my house and sit in Michigans soft pile of autumn leaves where I wrote yesterday …you are beautiful like they are ….love , megxxx

  22. In West Europe Catholics in the past have always celebrated All Saints and All Souls, but for real Christians those events and the ones of Halloween should be abstained from, being pagan feasts.

    For many people in Europe and elsewhere doing activities around ghosts, witches and spirits may be very attractive and the commerce act on it with bringing all sorts of gadgets to buy. Like Saint Nicholas, Christmas and Easter they all are pagan customs and tradition real lovers of God should not take part in it. (that is what it means being of this world or not.)

  23. Pingback: Autumn Verses | From guestwriters

  24. This is just a beautiful series and a very touching look at All Saints and All Soul. These shots hold such great contrast of fire and darkness ~ beautiful.

Comments are closed.