Article by Małgorzata Stanek
Still in the world, but not of the world
– Adam Mickiewicz from Dziady (“Forefather’s Eve”)
November is a month of solemn and important celebrations in Poland. November 11 is Polish Independence Day and early November is dedicated to honoring the departed. Specifically, November 2 is All Souls’ Day called Zaduszki in Polish. Zaduszki can be translated as “a day of prayer for the souls”. The eve of this holiday is known as All Saints’ Day. On these two days families visit the graves of the departed, lay flowers and light up candles. The cemeteries emanate otherworldly and solemn beauty as the sea of candles flickers as far as the eye can see. The words of Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz from Dziady (“Forefather’s Eve”), aptly capture this atmosphere: “still in the world, but not of the world”. There are many folk traditions related to Zaduszki. It is said that on this day the spirits of our forefathers come to inhabit the world once more.
Thus, on November 2 in Lublin, an interesting annual event, now in its third year, is held. Translated roughly into English as “Souls ardently in tears”, it is an open gathering for singing traditional songs accompanying death.
The gathering is open to all, regardless of singing abilities. You are given a singing book – which you can pay for what you will – a token to help the organizers cover their costs. The songs come from traditional repertoire and speak about death and what comes after, they offer a moment to meditate on death and mortality. The lyrics are characterized by solemn beauty. There’s a distinctly poetic feel to them that sweeps you into their meditative mood.
The songs deal with a sense of paltriness of worldly things, show the departing soul saying farewell to their family, the village – they give voice to the dead. Some of the songs are prayers for them. However, the organizers say that while singing the songs, they also think about the living, to help them go through difficult moments. One of the organizers thus speaks about the songs: “They are very varied. Some talk about death in a literal way, reminding us about the decomposition which awaits us at the end; other use more delicate comparisons, focusing on the spiritual side of the process. It’s interesting that melodies which are used for these songs aren’t always as clam or sad as you might think. Frequently, we encounter dance tunes and only the lyrics remind us that it’s a song about a death. I think that this ambiguity and changeability of “moods” makes people want to get to know more songs. Every song brings in something new, even though it deals with a subject as old as death.
The group gathered in the cemetery filled with ancient graves – the resting places of people who came before us and are a part of the history of every day. The singing began right after dark. The voices carried above the lit-up graves, resonating with honesty and the sombre mood of the moment.
Even if your own individual singing isn’t particularly good, the group’s shared voice sweeps you away and your voice melts into the others. You distinctly feel a part of a community, it is a strongly shared experience. The organizers highlight that it is an important aspect. One of the initiators of the event recalls that he had to sing such songs alone on the occasion of one funeral he attended and that it’s really difficult because one singer focuses all the ritual tension on him or herself. For this reason, community is important. Moreover, the group of attendees increases every year and the sense that singing gathering rather than a concert becomes stronger every year – say the organizers. And even if your singing might not be the best, when it joins the others, what in the end comes through is one voice, singing as one, in honor of the dead. It’s a strongly reflective and moving experience.