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: Slovenes were busy 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. Underfoot, leaves crunched and half-sheathed chestnuts skittered. 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, all too often, 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.