Crossing the great divide on All Souls Day


The Czech Republic may be one of the most secular nations in Europe but All Souls Day - the day of remembrance for the departed – is a sacred family tradition handed down from generation to generation. As the holiday approaches the country’s cemeteries –well-tended throughout the year – are ablaze with candles and flowers as Czechs pay their respects to the dead.

The cemetery in Kryštofovo Údolí,  photo: the town of Hejnice
All Souls Day is a time to spare a thought for the departed and is probably the only time of year when Czechs take a break from their hectic existence to consider life’s spiritual aspects. People travel hundreds of kilometres to visit the graves of forefathers and relatives and many bring extra tea-lights to light on the graves of those who have no one left to tend them.

Among those long-forgotten, ivy covered tombstones are the graves of Sudeten Germans whose children and grandchildren were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war. Most of these Sudeten German graveyards were mercilessly razed down by the communists in the hard-line 1950s. One of the few Sudeten German burial grounds left untouched is in the town of Kryštofovo Udoli where it was left abandoned and uncared for for over half a century. The last burial in it took place sixty years ago and the overgrown tombstones and rusty lanterns tell their own story. Recently the villagers decided to change that and embrace a long-forgotten legacy. A group of locals now get together several times a year to maintain and care for the graves.

Man: “It would have been a sin to let this burial ground fall into decay – it just needs a little work and effort to make it look dignified again.”

Woman: “We do the usual stuff – clear the graves of weeds, sweep up fallen leaves and get our men-folk to straighten any leaning tombstones.”

Before the war there were an estimated 1800 Sudeten Germans living in the town and its vicinity. After the war only 200 were allowed to remain. Most of them have long died –others left of their own accord. Wolfgang Werner is the son of a local shoemaker who was expelled after the war. He is one of the few Sudeten Germans who comes back religiously every All Souls Day to visit the family grave and take a turn around his native town.

The cemetery in Kryštofovo Údolí,  photo: David Hertl
“I drive 560 kilometres to come here. There are others who would like to come but most of them are too old to undertake such a long journey and the young generation have no emotional links to this place.”

When All Souls Day comes round this year there will be dozens of flickering candles in a long forgotten graveyard and one small town will have crossed the great divide.