Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zaduszki, or a night at the cemetery

Nighttime at the Powązki cemetery in Warsaw...spooky!

If you happen to be in Poland around the time when October turns to November, you will have a hard time finding a Halloween party. Although the custom is gaining popularity thanks to the commercial world's neverending quest to introduce the same holidays and feasts everywhere and thus cut bulk production costs on plastic pumpkins, it is not in Polish tradition to dress up and go trick or treating. 

Instead, we light thousands and thousands of candles in the cemeteries:

All Saints' Day
I once knew a woman from England who spent a year in Poland- shortly after her arrival, she bought
 several candles just like these, thinking they would brighten up her apartment.
Don't do that. These are 'znicze', or graveyard votives, and yes, people will know the difference.

A boy lights a candle by a monument to all soldiers and civilians
 who died fighting the oppressor in WW2.

All Hallows' Eve, with its roots in pagan festivals, has evolved in Catholic Poland into a solemn and respectful celebration of the departed. The Slavic and Baltic pagans called the night of October 31st 'Dziady', a night of meetings with the dead. Candles were lit to guide the souls home, so that they could spend that one night out of the year with their loved ones. The pagan custom of performing rituals to help lost souls find their way into Nawia, the Slavic afterlife, eventually became the Christian prayer for souls remaining in Purgatory. Borrowed from the pagans is the custom of light: a grave without a candle is a grave forgotten, and a soul left without aid.

Four unknown soldiers. Someone has lit a candle for them, even though no one knows their names.

The grave of Maria Kownacka, a beloved children's author. Fans of her books covered the tomb with candles.
She wrote a fantastic story in the form of the Diary of a little plasticine man who lived in a
pencilcase. It was later made into a sweet tv series: Plastusiowy Pamiętnik

Top right you can see a little statue of plasticine-man Plastuś on the gravestone.
Someone has placed a real plasticine figurine on the pages of his diary.

On November 1st, we celebrate All Saints' Day, a public holiday, and November 2nd is 'Zaduszki' or All Souls' Day. 'Dusza', pronounced doo-shah, is the Polish word for 'soul'. In socialist times, the government tried to change the name of the holiday to a more secular 'Day of the Dead', but it didn't really stick.

The days between October 31st and November 2nd are the most common dates for visiting cemeteries. Many people will travel across the country just to clean up a loved one's grave, and light a candle for their peaceful rest.

This boy lived for two short years, dying in 1879. His name on the grave is shortened to
the endearing, childish 'Staś' instead of Stanisław.
 Does anyone remember him, or did a visitor to another grave take pity, and light candles over the forgotten crypt?

The particular thing is that during these three days, cemeteries are open past their regular hours, which are usually dawn til dusk. In Warsaw, areas of the city where the largest necropoliae lie are closed to regular traffic, and accessible only by walking or riding special 'Cemetery' public transport lines.  These measures are taken to reduce accidents due to unusually high traffic- this year, 48 people have been killed and nearly 500 have been hospitalised. In their rush to honour the dead, too many people end up joining them...

You should brave the odds anyway, and try to go to a cemetery after it gets dark. Don't be afraid- you will probably not be alone.

A ghostly crowd of the living visits the grave of Czesław Niemen, one of our most famous and influential musicians.

If you are in Warsaw, try the famous, two hundred and twenty year old Powązki cemetery, where generation upon generation of Warsavians, and many famous people are buried; poets, musicians, writers, but also wartime heroes, charitable doctors, brilliant scientists. Their graves will usually be covered in candles left by fans and appreciators.


Take your time strolling through this beautiful place- the gates won't close until very late, and in any case, there is a special hole in the fence left open for stragglers. You will walk in the darkness and light alike, with little, flickering flames guiding you among the graves. If you look up, you will see autumn leaves slowly circling down, and statues of saints and angels standing guard over the dead.



If you meet charming men and women asking for donations, drop a coin in their boxes. They are Polish actors, writers and other celebrities, who volunteer every year to collect money for the upkeep of this beautiful, historical place.

And when you are chilled through and tired of walking the maze of this huge cemetery, step outside the gate to buy some 'lord's skin'.

This gruesomely named little candy of uncertain origin, half-taffee, half-marshmallow and all sickening sweetness of a cousin to Turkish Delight cannot be bought in stores. You will find it only at church feasts and cemeteries. It is handmade, though no one knows where and by whom. Sometimes it's tinted pink. It comes wrapped in plain, white wax paper. Its name is 'pańska skórka', literally 'lord's skin', which supposedly used to be 'lady's skin', and was a reference to its delicate, smooth texture, and the pale colour. Why is it sold only by Warsaw cemeteries? What, exactly, is it made out of?

No one really knows.

The 'other side' of the cemeteries: porta-potties, overflowing dumpsters,
flower vendors with alcohol on their breath, and the ubiquitous 'lord's skin' candy seller.

Meta info:

The Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia article on All Souls' Day:'_Day

More of my photos from Powązki:


  1. Enough candles to burn down half a city?
    Solitary candles left on lonely graves everyone else's forgotten?


  2. Really beautiful entry!

    The difference between the Polish and American way of celebrating death is incredible. On the one hand, you remember the dead; we try to scare them away and pretend they aren't there. You put your dead in a cemetery to honor them; we put our dead in a cemetery so we don't have to think about them.

  3. M.B, is that how you really feel? That's a bit sad :( . I didn't think the American way was all that disrespectful when I was over there, it's just different. If I rant about Halloween, it's only the crass, commercial aspect, where it's forced upon us by sellers and companies that don't care about our own traditions, because it's more economical for them to have the same merchandise and decorations everywhere. But the holiday itself is very interesting, and has its merits.

    I think you also honour your dead, I'm sure you do- if in different ways!

    Anyway, I'm glad you liked this entry, and our customs. Maybe you can borrow a bit from our tradition, and go to a cemetery, one that allows candles (I heard many newer ones don't) to light a light for someone. Anyone. Even if you don't know them. That's what people often do, here, when they can't reach the cemetery their loved ones are buried at, or when they simply don't know where their bodies were laid to rest.