Death Through Brno

I have a resting bitch face. I think of myself as a positive person who always looks on the bright side, but the physical features of my face make it seem as though I am constantly pissed off. Or so I have been told.

Except for when I am driving, it really is true that I am generally happy inside.

Lately, though, I have to admit that I have had some tough days and some face-appropriate thoughts have crept into my mind. I am getting older, fatter and slower. The seasons are moving faster. My two children are maturing quickly. My parents are senior citizens. The daily world news is downright frightening. And now, when the days are dark earlier and the trees are losing their leaves, it is time for the worldwide traditions that deal with death.

Wednesday was Halloween in much of the English-speaking world. Friday is dušičky in the Czech Republic. In between, on Thursday, I have a funeral to attend.

My autumnal tradition as an American kid was Halloween. We would carve Jack-o’-lanterns and on Oct. 31 we would dress up in a costume and trick-or-treat around the neighborhood for bags of free candy. Halloween, with slight changes, is celebrated throughout the British Isles, too.
Now it is also celebrated in the Czech Republic. It is taught regularly in high schools in case the students need to speak of international holiday traditions during their graduation exams. Preschools have fully embraced carving pumpkins as an annual activity. And adult costume parties are popular.

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The Czech Republic, however, has its own more serious holiday during this time of year. It is called All Soul’s Day and it is every Nov. 2. In Czech, it is called Památka zesnulých, which means “a remembrance of those who have passed“. More commonly, Czechs call it dušičky, which means “little souls”.

All Soul’s Day does not have costumes or parties; instead, it is a sober remembrance of relatives and friends who have passed.

Cemeteries around the country — and especially Central Cemetery here in Brno — will be lit up with thousands of candles in a beautiful memorial. Many Czech families go together to clean off the plots of their deceased relatives. Leaves are swept off grave markers. Errant weeds are pulled. Gravestones are touched up. Flowers are arranged and candles are lit.

There is a long tradition for All Souls’ Day in Christianity. It is celebrated throughout Europe with different interpretations for the many different branches of Western theology. Some areas celebrate Holy Souls, others the Faithful Departed. Generally, though, it is said that this is when the dead are closest to the living world and that it is the best time to commune with the dearly departed.

In the past few years, I did not have a direct connection to dušičky. Now I do.

Two members of my extended family have passed away this year. Both were important to me. One was the inspiration for my first name and an important source of Czech pride that helped to bring me to Brno. Last week, another person close to me passed away.

Since my life is organized around the needs and growth of my young children, I am now more cognizant of the fact that birth and death are always together in the circle of life. In fact, Nov. 1 is a day that both will converge: My daughter will turn 4 and the friend who was the first to visit her in the maternity ward will be cremated.

It is an unfortunate convergence in the short run, but, really, it is proof for how life moves forward. When I light a candle this year, it will be a reminder of just how illuminated our place in this world is, even if it is for a flickering moment.


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