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.
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.
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.
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?
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.**