As an American, I keep wondering what is my culture. Years ago when I was working on a thesis, part of the query concerned the spiritual values of my culture. In older cultures such as the one I am visiting now, behaviors seem to be integrated into the fabric of life. In my culture we are constantly trying to invent our culture, and it is usually based on some sort of consumption. The two unifying events are Thanksgiving and the Superbowl, both of which involve contact team sport and gorging on food. At least the former involves sitting down to a table hopefully with loved ones.
This Sunday I accompanied my cousins to the cemetery. Every Sunday they go to the grave of her father and other relatives. I dutifully accompanied her, and as with everything else here, the events unfolded with no hint before hand. We went to pick up her mother, and then a neighbor and another cousin. I had only expected her mother. Each woman carried a bag filled with sweets, candles and cleaning supplies. The women exchanged greetings and traded candles and sweets with one another. As we entered the cemetery, there were roadside sellers that had flowers and candles. As we sat in front of the family plot and elderly man came and greeted our group, it seemed as if they knew him well, he gave them some candles and they in turn offered some sweets, which he gladly accepted.
I watched everyone; my family and others sweep and clean the tombstones. They brought bottles of water to douse the marble cases with, and each person had a small broom with which they swept away any leaves or dust. Some of the graves were from the 19th century, others were fresh. Many of the tombs had pictures or etchings of the dead on the face, others large monuments to the profession or interest of the person depicted. My elderly cousin, who lay next to the father of Valentina, had a marble soccer ball on his stone. One of the graves in the next plot had a three foot tall tooth, and I deducted he must have been a dentist.
It was quiet and sunny, this early Sunday morning. Everyone was readying for the week, and this ritual of visiting the dead with candles and sweets seemed as natural as having morning coffee with friends. As we left the cemetery, my cousin offered some home made cake to the gatekeeper, and we went off to church to attend what was left of mass.
Again, I was struck by the ritual of it all, walking into the courtyard, buying candles, placing them in front of icons. Effortlessly, without much visible thought in the ritual, I watched people come and do the same. What is different from my memory is after they cross themselves, the touch the ground. This church is the one where my grandmother was baptized. It was built in 1836 and houses very ornate carved wooden altars, lecterns and icon frames. The priest singing the liturgy has a ponytail, in which I from California take great amusement. After mass, we go to my cousin’s house to share coffee and sweets that each person in our cemetery group has brought.
I ponder the rituals of death in my own culture. We ignore the fact that death is with us at all times, and yet our entertainment options in cinema, computer games and television is a constant stream of death and killing. Why is death considered entertainment? Here in Prilep, death is part of daily life, a weekly ritual with coffee and sweets. The dead seem always with the living, there are flyers posted in the town square and the church of obituaries and death notices. I did not see the wailing I have experienced at Orthodox funerals in the United States. My cousin’s father has been dead since 2011, so it has not been so long. His tomb is ornate, a dark brown marble with a tasteful etching of his bust on the front. His elderly wife sits in front of the tomb, with her candles and sweets. I wonder does she think about the day when her body will lie next to him? For now she has friends and neighbors, she tutors her grand daughter in math, and makes sure everyone around her eats more than they could possibly fit into their stomachs. She is always sweet and smiling, interested in every detail of her communities life.
Death of our bodies is the portal to the next life, but also to the Christ. In my sanitary culture that takes the elderly, infirmed and dying away from all to see, that now rarely has funerals, I wonder and ponder about the consequence to the soul life. I also wonder if this practice is why we seem so preoccupied with death in our entertainment sphere, and why we idolize celebrity death, as well as rally around catastrophic death through massacres and natural disasters.
A wise teacher once told me, “We act as if we get out of this alive.” I always find a death of a loved one inspires me to live life more fully, to treasure my loved ones more dearly. I often find I am alone in this, and have been so often rejected when I try to reach out to others to connect, to hold on, to cherish and communicate. Maybe one reason this community is so close is precisely because they are aware of, and practice in their weekly rituals, an acknowledgement of the dead.
World War II Memorial, Prilep Macedonia
Christ came to take the fear from dying. Christ came to show that death is part of life, and a doorway to another life. Christ also came to Earth to experience death, to be intimate with humanity and to understand what we experience. Until Christ came, the process of death was not known or understood by the spiritual world. He came to not only give life, but to comprehend death. We meet him when we die, and I constantly ponder why we cling to this life often at the expense of others, why we think we can outsmart or escape death with enough weapons and money. Maybe these people who have a tradition of acknowledging the dead each and every day, and on Sundays with candles and cake, seem to know the true meaning of death. We grieve the loss, miss the physical companionship, but can celebrate the new phase. In the meantime, they polish the tombs and share their sweets with anyone who wishes to partake.