Serbs, and many other Orthodox Christians, celebrate the Days of Dead. Serbs believe that ancestors should be honored and that we who are alive are supposed to show them due respect and feed their hungry souls.
Zadusnice or the Serbian All Souls’ Day is a big event for Orthodox Christians. The importance of it is not only religious. Even those who are not religious will celebrate it, or in a certain way mark this day as special.
My family has never been very religious and we rarely went to church to light candles for the dead and the living. But on Zadusnice, my grandma Lena went to the local cemetery, where our ancestors had been buried to honor them, pray for their souls and to offer to them the food and beverages they had enjoyed in life. And I was her loyal companion in the preparation of the food for Zadusnice. We would go together to the cemetery every Zadusnice and place the food we had prepared next to the tombstones, light the candles and pray. It was not the religious significance or the religious meaning of this ritual that interested me. It was more the enjoyable and cordial atmosphere of the event that amused me. One would not expect the cemetery to be a jovial place where people met and talked, but during Zadusnice, our cemetery was exactly that.
There are four Zadusnice in a year, one for every season: summer, autumn, winter and spring, and they always fall on Saturday. Saturday is the day of week devoted to the dead in Serbian culture. And Serbs are funny people. They are outgoing and talkative, and they love to socialize with one another, laugh and make jokes anywhere, even in the cemetery.
Every Zadusnice, early in the morning, people from my hometown would head toward the cemetery. The cemetery that morning was alive. The gates of the cemetery were wide-open and people were swarming all around it. They went to the places where their own ancestors had been buried and placed the plates or bowls with food next to the tombstones. Then, they lit the candles, stood calmly next to the tombstones and silently prayed. After a minute or two of silent praying, they made the sign of the cross with three fingers of the right hand touching the forehead, chest and their shoulders, going right to left, and whispered:
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
After this, the priest was supposed to come and chant a prayer and bless the food. But there were hundreds of graves and usually only one or two priests who also liked to finish their prayers with a shot of rakija, so we knew that it would take some time until the priest come and chant a prayer for our dead. There was a plenty of food, coffee, juices and tea. And we would take few bites and of this and that while waiting for the priest. Once he arrived, we listened to his chanting with our heads bowed. And after the chanting, we all ate. The priest usually refused to eat since he had probably eaten too much that morning. But he didn’t refuse rakija. There was always room for a glass of rakija. My grandma shared the food with the other people whose ancestors lay buried close to our ancestors. And they also gave us some of their food. The priest, in the meantime, staggered to the next grave, swaying a little. Too much rakija took its toll on his body. But we knew that he would probably manage to finish his job that day. No matter how many shots of rakija he drank, his feet didn’t fail him. Even though his voice did, since his prayer was more mumbling than praying.
All around us people were talking, some of them were even smiling, the others were modestly laughing with feeble voices. And pardon me, it might not be appropriate to laugh, smile and gossip in the cemetery, but Serbs turn even a religious ceremony and ritual into a party. After a couple of hours of sharing the latest gossips and discussing the last episode of the favorite telenovela, women would usually pack the uneaten food to bring back home, leaving only the food for the dead on the tombstones. Men would finish their last glasses of rakija, and the jolly crowd would leave the cemetery.
Our local cemetery was not a pleasant place to visit during funerals and late at night. Funerals brought mourning and sadness that people reluctantly attended. And night time gave the cemetery a spooky look. The ghostly figures seemed to move through the tombstones. The absence of sounds and human voices let the mind create the apparitions that resembled vampires. However, Zadusnice livened up the cemetery, chased away all those spooks and ghosts and brought the jovial mood to this otherwise sad place. The dead ancestors were honored and well-fed. The priest was happy with the different types of rakija he had tasted. And the people of my hometown were satisfied that they showed due respect to the dead. All that made me keep going to the cemetery every Zadusnice with my grandma Lena.
Cover image courtesy of NASA HQ PHOTO via Flickr