The beauty of this tradition first dawned on me over twenty years ago, as I was travelling around the outskirts of Vienna. The bus windows framed a sort of starry night—not the sky but a mountain of flickering lights rising from the earth, a hillside cemetery. The passengers fell silent except for gasps of “that’s so beautiful.”
Another year found me in the Basilica of St. Stephen, King of Hungary. After the All Souls’ Mass, the electric lights went out for a candle-lit procession to the center of the nave. The organ blasted a version of Franz Liszt’s “Funerailles,” originally composed for piano. The brassy treble climbed the chromatic scale, while three deep bass notes punctuated the end of each phrase, making the whole edifice shudder. The sparse light of the candles enabled me to focus on the non-visual sensations: the musky, spicy aroma of incense filled my nostrils while the organ music vibrated my ribs.
On an even more recent trip to Slovakia, I noticed that, for a month prior to the holiday, flower shops displayed large racks of candles. (Halloween displays are rare, a novelty and Western import; costume parties are much more typical of the Carnival season.) The candles are mostly encased in red tinted glass, topped by metal hoods with cross-shaped openings to allow air in.
I longed to participate more closely in the All Souls’ tradition, but was wary of intruding on intimate family customs. Still, I went alone to the main cemetery of Piešťany, the spa town where I was staying. The afternoon sun brightened the whites, greens, reds and yellows of the floral arrangements that already covered the majority of graves, as hundreds of families streamed through. After sunset, the candles shined pale light on the decorations, while the visitors spoke to each other in hushed tones.
A large stone crucifix in the center of the cemetery served as a focal point for the community, and it afforded me, finally, a chance to make some contribution. I bought a candle of my own at flower shop by the entrance and came back. Families – most represented by three generations – kept building up the display; four-tiered racks provided extra space for the candles on the monument's granite base. A four-year-old girl held a lighted wooden stick, while her mother leaned over and guided her hand toward a candle. Some tykes beamed as they lit candles; others stared blankly at the flickering lights. After lighting and placing my candle at the base of the monument, I helped an elderly lady bundled in a heavy dark overcoat light hers.
Nearby, a man in his seventies gently instructed his grandson, “Put a candle on that grave. That’s my uncle that the Germans killed.” The foot-high grave marker revealed that its occupant had died in his early twenties at the end of World War II.
I felt an unexpected ease at the solidarity between the living and the dead, a reassurance at the continuity of life. The Communion of Saints, the Church in Heaven and on Earth.