All Saints’ Day is one of my favourite days on the Budapest calendar. To see policemen on traffic duty inside the grounds of the city’s major cemeteries makes me smile. To see generations of people making their way to the gravesites of those who have gone before them, armed with candles, flowers, and oftentimes food, warms the cockles of my sometimes cynical heart. To see families getting together to pray for deceased relatives and friends gives me faith that religion might still have a place in society, that it might still have a cohesive role to play.
All Saints’ Day is a relatively old feast day than can be traced back to 393 when St Ephrem apparently mentioned it in a sermon. It has its origins in the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their death. When, during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, martyrs became more common than not, the Church (namely Pope Gregory III (731-741)), instituted a common feast day on 1 November as a catch-all, to make sure that each and every one of them received their due.
Although a practising Catholic, my visit to a Catholic cemetery on 1 November lasts barely long enough to buy some flowers (cemeteries seem to be the only places open in Budapest on that day). Instead I visit the Old Jewish Cemetery, specifically the grave of author/journalist Bródy Sandór (1863-1924). I bring my flowers, say my prayers, and wonder whether Sandór is lying below, furiously kicking up the soil in an effort to dislodge my bouquet. I mean, All Saints’ Day is very much a Catholic holiday, not a Jewish one.
And yet, as all those devout Christians mill around the Catholic cemeteries, the emptiness and relatively neglected state of the neighbouring Jewish burial ground is a stark reminder of how quickly we forget. Just walking through it, seeing the fallen tombstones, the cracked paving, the overgrown graves, gives me pause for thought. Seeing memorials to those whose bodies never returned from the camps sobers me. Seeing benches that have broken under the weight of a collective memory gives me goose bumps. And I am reminded, yet again, of the transience of life and the importance of acknowledging the living lest we forget them when they die.
First published in the Budapest Times 1 November 2013