Ten months ago, when my partner and I first moved to Prague, we accidentally decorated our home with funeral candles. Despite our Gothic predilections, it was never our intent to fill our bookshelves with gifts meant for the dead. We simply discovered our local Tesco stacked high with beautiful red glass lanterns and, impressed by the low price and unfamiliar design, stocked up in the hopes that they would add a little warmth to our mostly empty flat. It was only a few weeks later as we strolled around the stately Vyšehrad cemetery that we realized our mistake: throughout the graveyard, the same red lanterns that now adorned our bedroom were glowing softly in the dusk.
At this time of year, when the veil between life and death is said to be at its thinnest, the simple yet striking image of the red lantern comes into its own here in Bohemia, at the heart of Dušičky.
Dušičky is a day of memorial and reflection, celebrated on November 2nd, on the day marked on Czech calendars as Památka zesnulých (remembrance of the deceased) and celebrated in Christian churches around the world as All Souls Day. In a largely non-religious country (year after year the census shows that only a tiny percentage of Czechs affiliate themselves with any faith) it seems strange that this traditional Christian day of vigil should have caught the Czech imagination so, but of all Church-based festivals, Dušičky is probably the last one to be celebrated with true solemnity by almost the entire country.
However, while I witnessed particularly well-attended Evensong services being held in churches around Prague on the night of the festival, the majority of the celebration is far more personal than religious, and observed in the graveyards themselves. On Dušičky itself, or over the nearest weekend if the festival falls on a weekday, families from around the country journey to the cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones, lay traditional pine leaves and candles, and spend time remembering the departed. This means that commonly there is a mass exodus from Prague, as city dwellers go to visit their family plots in the hometowns of their ancestors.
While spending Dušičky in a Bohemian country churchyard is definitely on my to-do list for next year, Prague itself is by no means left forgotten. The enormous Olšanská Cemetery – home to some incredible pieces of art nouveau sculpture and over two million burials – hosts a crowd of quiet and contemplative Czechs paying their respects before the gates are locked and barred at 5pm, due in part to a number of tragic vandalism incidents over the last several years. I decided to stroll slightly further afield to the historic Vyšehrad cemetery, tucked within the walls of an abandoned Medieval citadel, and final resting placed to a number of Czech worthies including the composers Dvořák and Smetana.
The moon was almost full when I arrived at the graveyard, and most of the families had already departed, leaving the parkland around the graveyard to evening joggers and dog walkers. The cemetery is tucked behind the splendidly Gothic Basilica of Peter and Paul, its fifteen bells pealing doxologies from the twin steeples as I approached. The graveyard glowed softly, almost welcomingly, with the light of lanterns and tea-lights alike, placed prayerfully alongside pine wreaths, reminiscent to me of Christmas, but symbolic to the Czech people of far more than festivity.
Dušičky is often referred to by expat acquaintances as Czech Halloween, although this misses the point rather. While it is only within the last five years that the commercial side of Halloween has arrived in Prague, with jack-o-lantern pumpkins now in every supermarket and posters for spooky-themed parties pasted around the streets, Dušičky remains a separate, solemn event. Looking a little deeper, Halloween exists in Western European culture as the pagan-based prelude to All Souls – a night on which the dead were both honoured and feared in equal measure.
From my solitary experience of Dušičky, there is no fear in this celebration. Even by moonlight on a wintery evening, this graveyard is radiating with beloved memories. The dead are not nameless phantoms on this night, but mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, laid to rest but never forgotten. This deeply Bohemian experience dispels the eerie mystery from graveyards for one softly-lit night, reminding us how these places so often seen as dark and empty places are in fact enduring monuments to heritage, to families, to memories.