Remembering the Lost on Slovenia’s Day of the Dead

While the USA is busy celebrating “All Hallows Eve,” the main event in Slovenia is All Hallows Day, November 1.  As the last of the autumn leaves tumble from the trees and winter gloom descends, the Slovenes observe their Day of the Dead (Dan Mrtvih) — pausing to look back on the generations who went before. And just when most of North America is waking up and combating their candy corn hangover with a pumpkin spice latte, Slovenes head to their cemeteries, arms full of candles and flowers, to honor lost loved ones.

Slovenia is one of many Catholic countries that observe the Day of the Dead  (also called All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Remembrance Day). The best-known variation is Mexico’s Día de Muertos, with its colorful skeletons on parade. But Slovenia’s Day of the Dead is a more subtle affair — all the more poignant for its understatedness.

Several years ago, the Day of the Dead found me in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. At the edge of downtown is one of the most beautiful final resting places I’ve seen: Žale Cemetery, designed by the great Slovenian architect and urban planner Jože Plečnik. (For those who appreciate European cemeteries, Žale is worth a visit any day of the year.)

I first stopped by Žale Cemetery on the afternoon of October 31 — All Hallows Eve. Stepping through its grandiose arcaded entrance, I was met with a deeply moving sight: Slovenians were busying themselves tending the graves. Each plot had been painstakingly weeded and scrubbed to a high shine, with not a pebble out of place. And each tomb was an artfully composed ensemble of candles, flowers, and mementos.

While back home, store shelves are stocked with plastic jack-o-lanterns, superhero costumes, and fun-size candy bars, Slovenian shops are doing a brisk trade in moss remover and headstone polish. Inside the cemetery, rickety green tables groan under the weight of red votive candles stacked on top of each other — two euros a pop. And for florists — who set up tents just outside the entrance — the Day of the Dead is their “Black Friday.”

Slovenes feel an obligation to tidy up the grave of each and every loved one. Cousins compare notes about who’s going to look after Uncle Janez’s grave, and who’s responsible for Aunt Marija. If you have a big family, you have a very busy week. My Slovenian friend said, good-naturedly, “I loved growing up as the only child in a big extended family. But these days, it makes the last week of October extremely busy.”

November 1 is a national holiday — everything is closed and quiet. But returning to Žale Cemetery, I found it overflowing with people. Everyone was wearing their Sunday best, as if attending the wedding of the year. I squeezed along the gravel lanes between elegant tombs decorated like parade floats — each one trying to outdo the next. Around mid-day, a priest appeared and began blessing the graves, and the crowd fell silent. After the ceremony, families departed to share a meal of remembrance, celebration, and fellowship.

Later that night — as the sky turned from overcast white to deep blue to inky black — Žale Cemetery was again full of people. Crunchy leaves and half-sheathed chestnuts skittered underfoot. Thousands upon thousands of flickering candles filled the gloomy cemetery with soft, dancing, deep-red light. Even when it began to rain, people still filled the cemetery. Old friends and distant cousins bumped into each other — for the first time in ages — at the grave of a shared loved one. Families huddled together under umbrellas, their tear-streaked faces shimmering in the candlelight, laughing together at treasured memories.

While this was in the capital’s most prominent cemetery, similar scenes play out in every graveyard, big and small, across Slovenia. After prepping the graves of their own relatives, Slovenes do the rounds to pay their respects to cherished friends, as well. A Slovenian friend counted about 15 different graves — spread over seven cemeteries — that her family tries to visit each November 1. And at each one, she leaves a candle or flowers. (She enjoys bringing her young boys along, if only to take in the spectacle.)

While Slovenia celebrates the Day of the Dead with a special reverence, similar observances take place in many Catholic countries in Europe. For example, recently a Palermitano told me that many Sicilians give gifts to children from their deceased ancestors. For a young child, stories about people they’ve never met can be hard to relate to. But presents? I mean, come on — presents make things real. Getting that toy they’ve been wanting from their deceased Great-Grandma helps a child feel connected to their roots.

Reflecting on these beautiful European traditions, I’m sad that American culture doesn’t set aside time for this kind of remembrance. We have national holidays to give thanks and to honor our presidents and to celebrate trees, but not to recall lost loved ones. (The closest thing we’ve got — Memorial Day, honoring fallen veterans — is, for most Americans, the unofficial start to summer and time for a big golf tournament in Ohio.) Perhaps we just have an uneasy relationship with mortality. While Europe looks back with nostalgia and respect, America races forward, as if escaping our past.

As a true-blue American, I can’t remember the last time I actually visited my family graves. Slovenia’s poignant Day of the Dead inspires me to carve out some time in my busy life to just remember…and be thankful.

5 Replies to “Remembering the Lost on Slovenia’s Day of the Dead”

  1. The 3 cemeteries on the cliff overlooking Nice FR are also beautiful with an astounding view as well.
    We don’t need one day a year to honor our dead. We should be living each day bringing honor and respecting our ancestors, especially for us Americans. Those who came before us gave us the gift of working for a better life. Live your life well in honor and memory of them.

  2. We can have masses said for our family members Alive or dead and we should because our time is short on earth but eternal in Heaven or Hell most people go through a purification in purgatory after which they are without a stain of sin worthy of Heaven some are in purgatory for months years if masses are said for their souls they maybe released in a few days once in Heaven those souls are very happy to pray for us

  3. I am a “true-blue” American also. It was a tradition in my family to plant or place flowers on loved ones graves (not just veterans) for Memorial Day and an artificial arrangement for Christmas. I grew up in Eastern Ohio and was raised in the Protestant faith. I remember other families doing this also and some still do as evidenced by the flowers I see on the other graves. My siblings and I have continued this tradition though I doubt if any of our children will continue with it. I now live in the Cleveland area and most of my friends are not familiar with this practice. I suspect it was more common at one time but with the scattering of families, decline in religion, more urbanization, increase in cremations, etc. it has sadly lost significance. It may also be more common in more rural areas.
    The ceremonies in Slovenia do sound beautiful and I thank you for sharing about it.

  4. My grandparents were Catholic immigrants from Slovenia who arrived in the US, one through Boston and one through Ellis Island, before the start of World War I. They became U.S. citizens and they raised 5 boys. All their sons went to college and almost all served in World War II. My sister and I are planning on visiting Slovenia next year with a Rick Steve’s group. I will be sure to visit my grandparent’s graves next year to clean and decorate them. Thank you for this article!

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