In most of Central Europe, All Souls’ Day is a family affair.
For much of the English-speaking world, October is spooky season, with ghost and cobweb decorations already going up. It culminates in Halloween, with children dressing up and going door to door for candy. But in Bohemia and Moravia, Dušičky rules. This is the Czech name for All Souls’ Day, which falls on November 2nd.
In much of Central Europe, All Souls’ Day is a family affair when people go to clean their relatives’ graves and decorate them with flowers and candles.
The name Dušičky is derived from “duše,” the Czech word for soul. The day has a few official sounding monikers like “Památka zesnulých” (Memorial of the Departed) or “Vzpomínka na všechny věrné zesnulé” (Remembrance of All the Faithful Deceased).
For practical purposes, families usually go on the closest weekend. In Prague, though, many cemeteries have extended hours on November 2nd. Cemeteries are filled and the atmosphere is almost festive. And as the sun sets early, the candle-lit graves are a beautiful sight.
The saddest thing to see is plush toys left on children’s graves, and not just recent ones. In Olšanské hřbitovy, Prague’s largest cemetery, one centuries-old grave of two young girls killed in a traffic accident still always gets gifts.
Famous people from long ago are also remembered as well. Candles and wreaths surround the graves of people whose names are found in Czech history books.
The day is not entirely sombre, as relatives sometimes meet people they haven’t seen all year. And usually, children can look forward to stopping off for a restaurant meal or probably even some fast food that the kids no doubt prefer.
The Slavic tradition seems to be influenced by the Celtic autumn festival of Samhain, halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. There is also the Day of the Dead in Mexico in the first days of November.
According to Czech folklore, the souls of those in Purgatory – the place in between Heaven and Hell – are released for one day starting on the eve of All Souls Day. These souls are still going through the purification or purging process before they can reach Heaven.
Forgotten traditions and new trends
Long ago, Bohemians would leave butter-filled jars or lanterns at graves to ease the pain of the souls of departed loved ones. People would also drink or splash themselves with cold milk to soothe the ailing spirits.
People used to bake pastries shaped like crossbones or wreaths, but virtually nobody does this anymore. Groups of singers would go from door to door in the hopes of getting these pastries, which seems to have been a cross between trick or treating and Christmas caroling.
At sweet shops, you can still get pastries called little coffins (rakvička) filled with whipped cream, but these are available all year round.
Aside from decorating graves, these traditions all vanished over a century ago, and have not been revived.
Businesses have made efforts to promote an American-style Halloween to sell costumes and candy, but it remains a niche event – mostly an excuse for young adult revelers to have an all-night rave at a nightclub. If you dress up and knock on a random door, it is unlikely they will be distributing candy to strangers. But one aspect of Halloween is slowly taking hold. Carved or plastic pumpkins have been turning up as grave decorations.
Where to go in Prague
For people who want to visit cemeteries in Prague, the main ones are grouped close together.
Olšanské hřbitovy is actually 12 cemeteries combined. The oldest section is by Olšanské náměstí and the Atrium Flora shopping center. The newer part is by metro Želivského, with the entrance at the tram stop Mezi Hřbitovy.
It also has graves of British Commonwealth soldiers and pilots from World War II, as well as many other graves from both world wars and other conflicts including the Napoleonic Wars.
Close to Olšanské hřbitovy you can find the Vinohradský hřbitov (Vinohrady Cemetery), which has the tomb of former President Václav Havel in an alcove on the side of the church.
Right next to this cemetery is the modern Krematorium Strašnice (Strašnice Crematorium). Across the street, you can find the German Evangelical Cemetery (Německý evangelický hřbitov), which reopened a few years ago after having been closed since the end of World War II.
People interested in leaving a candle for famous Czech figures ranging from composer Antonín Dvořák to opera star and occult fan Ema Destinnová can go to the cemetery in Vyšehrad, next to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. It also has some of the most artistic tombstones. Most cemeteries have maps near the entrance showing the location of the more famous residents.
The city’s spookiest resting place is the long-abandoned Bohnice Cemetery, which historically was used by an asylum. It is currently being renovated by the city.