“For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest,” especially one.
This is All Saints’ Say. On this day Slovaks visit cemeteries and light candles on graves. Most of my staff members go home to their villages for the holiday so they can visit family graves. I asked Petra, our University intern from Kosice, whose grave she was going to visit since she was far from home. She said that since she couldn’t visit family graves she would visit “Alexander Dubcek’s,” plot at the Slavicie Udolie (Lark Valley) Cemetery. He was the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring, which was ended by Russian tanks in 1968. We decided to do the same.
I don’t like visiting graves. Perhaps it was because in 1950, when I was a really little kid, I watched them exhume bodies from a 17th century Dutch Cemetery across the street where they were clearing room to build the playground for Somerville School. The big kids scared us with ghost stories, like there was the one that never got dug up living under the see-saw. Perhaps my feelings are because I like to remember loved ones as vital living people. But visiting graves on All Saints and All Souls Days here is an experience.
Outside the cemetery vendors sell flowers, wreaths and candles. While there are lots of people in the cemeteries it is absolutely silent. You walk along paths and each grave has a candle in a red chimney. Collectively they give the night a strange but comforting flickery glow.
Even though it’s dark it’s impossible to miss Dubcek’s grave. Hundreds of white candles surround it and sit on top of the simple and elegant monument. We watched from a distance and a constant stream of people paid respects. A surprising number were young couples not born 30 years ago (in 1968.) Many bought their kids. One couple lit a candle and stood silently, holding hands. One father bent over his small son trying to explain why there were at this particular site.
There are many conspiracy theories about Dubcek’s death in a car accident in 1992 before the breakup of the country. Many times people have told me how different it would have been; now much better, had he lived just a few more years. Petra told me how sad she was at the breakup of the country. She said “perhaps we will meet again in a United Europe.” Bratislava, Slovakia, November 1, 1998.
All Saints Day, a big national holiday. Everyone has the day off to visit family graves. Those of us who are far from those graves visit a surrogate grave, in Bratislava, that’s the grave of Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the 1968 Prague Spring.
There was a huge traffic jam at the cemetery and it took us a long time to negotiate a parking place on a hill above the cemetery. As we walked to the gate there were perhaps a thousand people and dozens of vendors selling flowers, candles, pine boughs and popcorn. The sound of the outdoor mass, the priest filtered through a tinny speaker, drifted up from the center of the cemetery.
Dubcek’s grave was covered with a carpet of rust brown maple leaves, with a few yellow ones for accent that fell from the birch that shades his headstone. On top of this carpet hundreds of candle flames dance in the slight breeze, occasionally setting the leaves alight. It’s the incense of fall, burning leaves mixed with the smell of paraffin. This daylight scene is much different from our nighttime visit last year. But the parade of people paying respects is much the same. We watch as tens of people stop to pay respect. A little girl in a pink stocking cap negotiates the candles to carefully place a bouquet of daisies next to the bust of Dubcek that sits on top of the headstone. There are so many young families here. Many of the parents were not born when Russian tanks crushed the Prague spring and Dubcek returned to Bratislava to become a minor official in the Forestry Ministry. Bratislava, Slovakia November 1, 1999.