Death is the great equalizer. Like the bones of the dead, layers of history intermingle in Antakalnis Cemetery. The cemetery’s incongruous monuments and grave markers reflect varying points of reference—religious, political, cultural, ideological—as they have played out here in Lithuania over centuries of humanity. “Antakalnis” in Lithuanian means “on top of the hill.” Here, from its hilltop location the cemetery bears witness to the overlapping stratums of human life, and strife, in this northern European country of three million. This is a land that has known little peace, a crossroads between Eurasia and Europe, a tiny country surrounded by three giants, Russia, Poland, and Germany. The cemetery holds the remains of foreign occupying armies and armies passing through; the peacemakers and the traitors; the priests and the atheists; the artists and the pragmatists. My grandparents, Ambassador Anicetas Simutis and Janina Čiurlyte Simutiene, are buried here. I am the family caretaker of their grave. I am the keeper of their memory.
In the spring of 2007, my mother and I had my grandparents’ remains cremated and the ashes packed into a small metal container about the size of a jewelry box, something shiny and decorative that my grandmother would have liked. We flew from New York City across the Atlantic with the box tucked deep inside a quilt carrying bag, each of us holding one handle, as we negotiated American, and then European, airports.
My grandparents’ burial took place in the spring of 2007 on one of those May days when the sky is aquamarine and crowded with cumulous clouds, and the northern sun draws out the deepest purples and brightest yellows from the wildflowers creeping up the cemetery’s hillsides. As our family walked the cemetery path flanked by tall pines behind an honor guard sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my mother whispered to me, “If she can see us, Bobute will like this.” My grandmother liked pomp and circumstance. I could not remember eating a meal at my grandmother’s table, even a casual one, when she did not set out silver and cloth napkins. My grandfather was modest, preferring to ride to United Nations sessions by subway rather than in a limousine at his struggling country’s expense.
My mother was born in New York City in 1939. I was born in 1966 in New Jersey. Although I was born two generations removed from Lithuania, my grandparents taught me to love and respect my heritage and to make it a priority to return to live and work in an independent Lithuania. In the past twenty-five years of my life, I’ve returned to Lithuania twice as a Fulbright lecturer and have worked, conducted research, and lived in Vilnius in a variety of capacities. I maintain a second home in Vilnius. I have dual citizenship. I have cultivated the same social circle since I was a student at Vilnius University in 1988 and 1989.
To reach my grandparents’ grave from my apartment in the center, I exit the building’s gated cobblestone courtyard and step onto Saint John’s Street, into the shadow of the bell tower of the baroque Church of Saint John. I enter the flow of pedestrian traffic on narrow winding Castle Street, a medieval cobblestone way that wends from the Gates of Dawn, where Catholics pray on their knees on the street below the miraculous painting of the Virgin Mary, to where it ends at the foot of Gediminas Castle, situated on a forested hill towering over Vilnius.
Vilnius is a city built on a dream. As legend goes, in the early fourteenth century, after a weary day of hunting in the hills, Grand Duke Gediminas lay down to sleep on the ground in the forest and had a vivid dream of an iron wolf howling at the top of the hill. The wolf instructed the Grand Duke to build a great city nestled between these hills and protected by three rivers. Centuries before Jungian dream interpretation, the Grand Duke sought out the help of the pagan shaman, Lizdeika, who instructed him to heed the iron wolf’s message. Vilnius is first mentioned in the letters of Grand Duke Gediminas as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1323.
I weave between a myriad of café tables set directly on the street, populated with lingering coffee-drinkers and wine tasters, heads bent together deep in conversation, or tilted back, laughing easily. The usual beggars and con men work the tables.
I pause to listen to the street musicians; cross the street to Cathedral Square. Here, in the shadow of classical Vilnius Cathedral, with its tall white columns and statues of saints and angels on the roof, beside the elegant slim bell tower painted white with ancient copper bells that resound across the city every evening precisely at six, I take a brief hiatus to let the local chapter of Hari Krishnas glide across the square on their evening procession, swirling in their scarlet and purple robes, beating drums, and singing harihari with a distinctly Lithuanian inflection. I stop in my tracks to let the occasional marching band pass, or uniformed school group, or to guard against my shins being run into by teenage skate boarders gliding down the white marble stairs designed five hundred years ago for pause and reflection.
I glance up at Gediminas Castle, tenacious and steadfast. If I climbed the cobblestone road up to the castle, from the battlements I would see Antakalnis Cemetery, and just beyond the cemetery, the forest that extends 33.8 kilometers to the Belarussian border.
I cut through the leafy green park that stretches along the Vilnele River—perfect for idyllic summer afternoon boating in the style of nineteenth century impressionist paintings— and walk at a brisk pace down Antakalnis Street, dividing the suburb of Antakalnis in half—one side populated by crumbling Soviet-era brick and cement apartment buildings and their similarly crumbling occupants; the other side sporting mirror-image crumbling buildings, only, interspersed between them, are charming side streets with even more charming names, like Sea Goddess Street (Jurates Gatve) or Street of the Goddess of Love (Mildos Gatve), that lead up the steep hill towards well-maintained cozy wooden one-family homes that are populated by “new” Lithuanians—young families in their twenties and thirties with West European educations and promising careers.
Once I reach the baroque Church of Saint Peter and Paul with its ornate interior of pudgy angels and crystal ship that hangs above the altar, I know I am almost at my destination. Situated in front of a precarious (and infamous for fender benders) traffic circle where for some reason the traffic lights have never been switched on, the Church of Saint Peter and Paul is my landmark for the road that leads up the hill and into Antakalnis Cemetery.
Between tall swaying pines, in the shadow of the forest that was once the Sapeigine hunting grounds of the medieval Grand Dukes, I find my grandparent’s grave. Here is my point of reference. Here I remember my grandfather, two meters tall and as a broad as a refrigerator. My grandfather, who for half a century represented a country that had been wiped off all the maps of the world. My grandfather, who struggled to support a family of four on a symbolic income from the Lithuanian émigré community while hunted by the KGB, badmouthed by traitors and informers, glorified by patriots. He stubbornly maintained his post as Consul General of prewar independent Lithuania, working out of a rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My grandfather issued pre-War independent Lithuanian passports to political refugees; helped displaced persons find work and shelter after World War II; gave fiery anti-Soviet speeches on The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and pressured the State Department not to recognize Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. With his voice of reason, making the argument that drains on the Soviet economy would eventually cause the Soviet Union to implode, Anicetas Simutis led his community of postwar refugees through the long dark years of the Cold War until 1991, when at the age of 85, he was appointed newly independent Lithuania’s first Ambassador to the United Nations by Lithuania’s fledgling democratic government.
I once asked my grandfather if he was an idealist.
“No,” my grandfather answered, “I am not an idealist. I am duty-bound to my country.”
He and my grandmother were duty bound to a country they could never return to while the Soviets were in power—unless they were willing to face imprisonment or a death penalty. They waited fifty-five years to be able to come home.
In the meantime, I went home for them. At the time, I was studying at the Lithuanian Gymnasium, a high school in Germany that taught courses in a combination of the German and Lithuanian languages, a carry-over from the post-war refugee schools. I traveled to Soviet-occupied Lithuania for the first time in 1983 as a guest on a KGBsponsored tour for the children of Lithuanian émigrés. I visited again in that Orwellian year, 1984. I was one of the hand-picked students selected to go. I knew immediately that I had been selected because the KGB was very interested in my grandfather’s activities.
I wrote in my journal about my trip to Lithuania when I was seventeen:
My first thought was that I absolutely could not go. I could not compromise my grandfather’s principles and life work. How would it look? The granddaughter of Consul General Anicetas Simutis traipsing off an all-expense paid propaganda tour of Soviet-occupied Lithuania?
I went to our dorm supervisor’s apartment and paid her five Deutsch marks to use the phone to call America. I told my grandfather that I had been selected as one of the students to go on the trip to Lithuania. I told him that obviously I would refuse the trip.
“Laima, you must go,” my grandfather said. “No matter what you do, people will talk about me. You must go and stick your nose everywhere possible and then when you come back you will report everything you saw and heard to me.”
Dissidents who worked at Radio Free Europe in Munich gave me a stack of Bibles, political books, papers, letters, and medicine—all of it contraband in the Soviet Union—with instructions on how to deliver them once I was behind the Iron Curtain to the appropriate sources, political prisoners and underground dissidents who were working to undermine the Soviet Union from within. I was warned that at the border between Poland and the USSR our luggage would be checked. Each coupe was allocated fifteen minutes time for inspection. To get around the inspection I buried my “illegal literature” deep on the bottom of my suitcase. On top I scattered copies of light porn magazines and lingerie. When the soldiers came in to inspect our coupe—two young boys around my age—they became engrossed in leafing through my “contraband” magazines and never dug any deeper in my suitcase. They curtly informed me that they needed to confiscate the magazines and admonished me for trying to bring “pornography” into the Soviet Union, where such corrupt magazines were outlawed. That was how I delivered necessary medicines, letters, and political and religious materials to people working the underground in Lithuania, my grandfather’s people. At the same time, I dutifully attended every propaganda tour and session.
Perhaps the propaganda did rub off on me, because in 1988 and 1989 I returned to Lithuania to study Lithuanian Literature for a year at Vilnius University. I arrived just in time to witness the “singing revolution” that led to Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union. It was a carnival-like time when it seemed as though the entire country poured into the streets to speak their minds. The revolution was dubbed the “singing revolution” because massive crowds sang folk song after folk song, protest song after protest song, as they peacefully gathered in the spirit of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
By car Antakalnis Cemetery is no more than fifteen minutes’ drive from the center—providing there is no traffic. At a brisk pace this distance can be walked in forty minutes.
Or longer, if thousands are walking in procession together, as was the case on January 16, 1991, when the remains of fourteen peaceful demonstrators (thirteen of them students in their early twenties) were laid to rest in Antakalnis Cemetery in the bitter cold and twilight darkness of a northern winter afternoon. The demonstrators gathered on the night of January 12–13, surrounding the Vilnius Television tower in a human chain, to protect the tower from Soviet troops, who were ordered in with tanks and machine guns. They had been singing folk songs when they were attacked and killed. Their graves are laid out in a sweeping arc, nestled against a protective hill, with a marble Pieta in the center.
After independence in 1991, my grandparents were finally able to go home. Friends they had parted with in 1936, when as newlyweds they sailed to New York to fill my grandfather’s post as a young diplomat, students and young professionals then, greeted them at the airport in 1991 leaning in over their canes to shake hands. The few who were still alive, that is. Almost all of them had been through the Gulags of Siberia. After my grandfather died, my mother and I found a manifesto written out by hand in elegant script on the back of a black and white photograph of my grandfather and his three closest friends taken in 1933. The foursome were in their twenties, had just completed their university studies, and had embarked on a tour of Western Europe. Inspired by the sights of Europe, they wrote their manifesto. They vowed to remain close friends until death parted them and to always choose the decent, courageous, and righteous path in life. Ten years later only my grandfather was still alive. Tucked behind the photograph and manifesto there was a letter dated 1953, the year Stalin died. The letter was from Siberia. In the letter the daughter of one of the friends in the photographs describes how her father died of starvation in a concentration camp in Siberia in 1943; how his dying wish was that she write to his friend, Anicetas, and let him know.
In the spectrum of an extended family’s gene pool, I connect most with my grandfather. I knew this from the age of sixteen. We look alike. We think alike. We intuit alike. We obsess alike. And we shared the same birthday, February 11, which we always celebrated together with tea and cake. When I read through my grandfather’s personal journals after his death, I felt how the space he carved for his own private reflection reminded me of my own fingerprint of thought.
After my grandfather’s death in March 2006, I was cleaning out his house in Long Island. In the garden shed I found cartons and cartons of his writing, accumulated over the years. He wrote for Lithuanian newspapers before the war and émigré newspapers after the war. He wrote detailed diplomatic pro memorias to his boss, Stasys Lozoraitis, in Washington. But he worked out his private thoughts in his personal journals. It was just like him to store his work in the garden shed. My grandfather was a modest man, a practical man. Once the writing had served either its public purpose or private function, it was relegated to the garden shed.
Antakalnis Cemetery was established in 1809. In the early nineteenth century mostly soldiers— Russian, German, and Polish—were buried here. On the left side of the sandy footpath that divides the cemetery into two halves the remains of Polish soldiers from Józef Klemens Piłsudski’s army are laid to rest in diagonal sweeping rows marked with identical white stone crosses that plummet and dip across the sloping valley. They fought to annex Vilnius to Poland in 1919–1920. Vilnius and its environs remained under Polish control until 1939 when Stalin returned the historic capital and surrounding areas to the Lithuanian republic in exchange for permission to station Soviet troops on Lithuanian soil.
Every year on All Soul’s Day members of the Polish community honor the fallen Polish soldiers by placing three simple white candles on each point of each cross, creating a sweeping visual image in the ink-black November night. Some Lithuanians take the gesture as a reminder that although the Poles have retreated for the moment, they will be back. After all, they reason, Piłsudski’s heart is buried in Vilnius and his body in Poland. Certainly one day he will have to come back to retrieve his heart.
Footsteps from the remains of Piłsudski’s army lie the remains of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon’s Grand Armee. Their bones are consolidated into one mass grave marked with a common marker.
In 2002 a construction company was excavating in the suburb of Žirmunai when workmen uncovered layers of bones. At first they thought the worst, the typical story in this region, either Holocaust victims killed during the Nazi occupation of 1941–1944 or Lithuanian resistors to the Soviet occupation killed during the 1944– 1956 partisan war. But testing proved those first guesses wrong. The bones dated from the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon left his Grande Armee to fend for themselves on the streets of Vilnius after his retreat from Russia in the deep of a northern European winter. Further testing revealed that Napoleon’s soldiers had frozen to death, died of exposure, or died of starvation. When I wander through the cemetery, I often think of these men of the Mediterranean, of warmer climes, and of the reckless futility of their winter march on Moscow.
For Lithuanians, living so deep in the hinterlands of Europe, any brush with greatness, no matter how infamous, is noteworthy. Once when visiting a friend’s dacha, my friend’s mother enthusiastically pointed at a trench in their backyard and proudly said, “Napoleon’s army marched through here.” On my father’s side relatives boast a dash of French blood, thanks to Napoleon. My great-great grandmother found a wounded French soldier in the fields and nursed him back to health, later becoming his wife. Subsequent generations point fingers at this distant French ancestor as the cause of any family lunacy and the explanation as to how in this gene pool of blonds some of our relatives have black hair and an olive complexion.
My grandparents’ grave is located in my favorite part of Antakalnis Cemetery—a hilltop devoted exclusively to dreamers. Here creative people are laid to rest: artists, poets, writers, actors, musicians, theater directors, and alongside them, émigré diplomats who served as Lithuania’s diplomatic corps in exile during the Soviet occupation. They had all grown old together united by their cause, the fight for independence for Lithuania, and now they all rest together.
The creativity of the people laid to rest here is reflected in the graves themselves. There is no such thing as a “standard” or “uniform” or “traditional” grave stone. Each grave is a sculpture and the sculptors who create them strive to create monuments that are works of art. The grave of an actor is expressed as a stone sculpted tastefully in the shape of the comedy and tragedy masks. Another grave, of a writer who committed suicide, consists of a simple circle of stones with a slender linden tree growing gracefully through the center.
Beside my grandparents’ grave is the grave of Birute Pukelevičiute, a writer and poet of my grandparents’ generation, who was also an émigré in America. She corresponded with me, commenting on my poems when I was first learning the craft as an adolescent. In 1992, before I gave birth to my first son, Birute wrote me a letter in which she described the dichotomy between birth and death: “When a woman gives birth, death hovers close by.” She enclosed this poem about her own birth, which I translated into English:
My mother was slender, like the bird-cherry.
Heavy with me, her misfortune ripened.
Wide bowls filled with wild flowers—
The yellow painted shutters remained
Closed: she was painting for me.
I came during the very Consecration—
When all the roads are empty, the organ still.
Throughout the night my cradle filled
With jagged, fallen, harvest stars.
And my mother cried out bitterly
For the first time.
Because I had broken away,
Like a land-slide, and will rush
Down. Without her.
She holds my hands from slipping out of hers.
Autumn orchards burn red.
Wild drakes fly south; their wings
Then I say good-bye.
The path through the rushes hunches in.
The sedges are like sharpened knives.
Toothless trunks gape at me;
My joints shake.
But I do not turn back.
On the second tier of the hill lies my dear friend, the poet Nijole Miliauskaite, who died in 2002 at the age of 50 from breast cancer. I remember our last visit together in May, 2001. She wore a big floppy wig with bangs that fell too far down on her forehead. Nijole prepared a table full of Indian delicacies for my visit. Nijole and her husband, the poet Vytautas Blože had embraced Eastern teachings, mantric singing, dietary control, and an enhanced sense of transcendent mystical connection to the world made possible through their belief in Hindu teachings. They never ate in restaurants because they could not be sure of the karma of the cooks who prepared the food. The especially never ate store-bought bread because the process of kneading the bread ensured that a stranger’s karma would enter it and by eating it that karma would pass into them.
After lunch, we drove to Nijole and Vytautas’s cottage in a nearby village. I was amazed at the amount of renovating and gardening the couple had done—he in his seventies and in poor health and she with her chemotherapy and radiation treatments that required long hospital stays. Nijole showed off her kitchen. She had painted every appliance aquamarine blue, along with the kitchen floor and walls. Blue was a healing color, she told me, a divine spiritual color. Months after her death, Vytautas said to me: “Everywhere I look, I see her unfinished work.”
About a year before her diagnosis, I translated one of Nijole’s poems. Now, upon reflection, I believe she sensed then that her time had come:
Time to Transplant
this spring I must transplant, it’s about time.
my aloe, old, gnarled,
aloe vera treasured beyond words
by those who know its healing qualities
hidden deep within
what a tangle of roots, tiny ones, thick ones
so tight that there is no way
I can remove them no matter what
I do— I grab a rock and smash the vase
and why after all
were you so stubborn clinging
to those clay walls
with all your strength?
what was it that you were holding onto?
stop scratching me, stop scraping my arms
don’t tell me you liked
your prison narrow and poor as it was
where you never had enough water or food, after all
you’ll get a new vase, spacious and beautiful!
my soul, don’t tell me that you too
are clutching at the unstable
of your prison
Nijole’s grave marker consists of a playful angel with pudgy cheeks carved by a local woodcarver. The angel wears a smirk on his face. Knowing Nijole, I think this poem could have been her epitaph:
ach, not again! I cannot
do two things at once:
if I’m writing a poem
then there’s no doubt
that I’ll burn the potatoes
A few footsteps down the path, the writer Jurga Ivanauskaite rests. She earned her stripes as a controversial post-Soviet writer when she wrote a novel about priests having sex with young girls. After independence, when Lithuanians could travel for the first time, she hitchhiked to Dharamsala, India, to study Buddhism with the Dalai Lama. She wrote a nonfiction trilogy about Buddhism and Tibet. Jurga died of cancer at the height of her career at the age of 45. I translated her last book of essays, The Sentence, written during the two years of life she “borrowed” after her cancer diagnosis by getting specialized treatments in a hospital in Lund, Sweden. The essays are honest, spare, written in a race against death, and in my opinion, are her best work:
On the same evening I find out that I have cancer, I find out that I have been awarded the National Prize for Culture and Art. … On that memorable evening I did not feel pain or fright or even panic. … My only wish—to get home from the hospital and to cry my heart out in the kitchen, chain smoking—was fated not to happen. I had barely got a good cry going when the phone rang and a cheerful voice congratulated me on winning the National Prize. Again, just as the tears managed to come and get me past my rock hard wall of self-control, the phone rang again, and I was obligated, as winner of the prize, to give a blitz telephone interview to a journalist. My cry gets lost in the emotional underbrush and does not return, like a stepchild led out into the forest, who has tossed away his breadcrumbs in vain. During my year of overtime I rarely cry. I laugh much more. And I smile almost all the time…
Jurga’s mother often comes to tend her grave while I am tending my grandparents’ grave. We share a common water spigot. She is my cemetery friend. When we each finish our weeding and watering, we take a stroll together around the cemetery, and Jurga’s mother advises me on what plants grow best in this harsh northern climate and which plants to avoid. She speaks softly, pointing to this shrub, that groundcover, offering me sound advice. She sometimes speaks of her daughter. One time she brings me a book of her poetry. It is not natural for a mother to outlive her daughter, she tells me.
The bard Vyautas Kernagis is buried a few plots away from Jurga. On the All Souls Day after Vytautas died, also of cancer, a fan sat beside Vytautas Kernagis’s grave, strumming a guitar, sipping dark beer from a glass bottle, tears streaming down his face, making toasts, crying out, “Oh, Vytautas, I miss you so!”
The Catholics honor their dead on November 1st and the communists honor theirs on May 9th, the anniversary of the end of World War II and Russia’s victory over Germany. One May 9th, forgetting the date, I made one of my usual Sunday afternoon trips to Antakalnis Cemetery to tend to my grandparents’ grave and found myself in the middle of a sea of Russian-speakers, dressed in suits and formal gowns, carrying bouquets of blood red carnations to their people’s graves.
Painful as the Soviet occupation was for many Lithuanians, a percentage of the population collaborated with the Soviet regime and intermingled with the Russian colonists brought in by train to occupy the homes and jobs of those exiled to Siberia. Many of them are buried in Antakalnis Cemetery as well. The entire hilltop directly behind the graves of the students killed during the demonstrations for independence is populated by the graves of Soviet communist aparatchiks and collaborators. These graves reflect the aesthetic of social realism, an aesthetic that now comes across as absurdist, or even comical, but at the time conveyed the symbolism of a very concrete ideology. Besides the expected hammers and sickles and red stars, these graves are adorned with carvings of social realist depictions of the working man or working woman. For some odd reason, communist party leaders are sculpted into stone still wearing their square-rimmed spectacles perched, even after death, on their noses, as though they’d forgotten to remove their glasses before dozing off to sleep.
There were people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who questioned my choice to lay my grandparents’remains to rest just a few hundred meters away from the communists my grandfather dedicated his life to fighting against. However, my grandfather was liberal-minded man who took a measured view of other people’s convictions and did not hold their political views against them personally. I read in his diaries about how he would secretly arrange to have lunch with former Soviet citizens who had escaped from the Soviet Union in order to learn more about life behind the Iron Curtain. He wrote that he felt sorry for them because of the poor living conditions they endured. When the occasional Cold War escapees came trickling into the Lithuanian émigré community in New York City in the seventies and eighties, he opened up his home to them, setting politics aside and helping them establish themselves in America. For the entire duration of the Cold War, my grandparents mailed packages to relatives in Siberia and Lithuania, even in the years when they had very little for themselves and their own children.
A friend once showed me a secret burial ground situated in a patch of forest just beyond where the cemetery grounds end. In a forgotten corner overgrown with thick tangled weeds KGB officers and NKVD soldiers of the postwar period lie in communist peace. No religious ornamentation here. A single red star decorates each of the identical graves bearing names in Cyrillic. A year later I came back to this spot and was surprised to find the weeds cleared out and the graves restored. A new memorial plague dated from 2009 read that the Russian government had funded the restorations: Putin’s steely fingers reach even this far.
I once took a group of writing students from Concordia University through Antakalnis Cemetery. I showed them a monument built for Lithuania’s first Soviet puppet president Antanas Sniečkus, a cement wall with his larger than life Big Brotheresque image carved into it. He was a real traitor, disowned even by his own mother, who fled to the West when the Soviets invaded Lithuania in 1944. Sniečkus organized the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and I suppose she felt that he would not have spared even his own mother.
In the group there was an Inuit woman from Greenland. She had grown up in a small tribal community in northern Canada. After I narrated the story of Lithuania’s traitor, Antanas Sniečkus, she asked:
“Was he a Russian?”
“No,” I answered.
“If that is so,” she insisted,“how could he have betrayed his tribe? In our culture, you do not betray your tribe.”
Unfortunately, sometimes we do betray our own tribe.
In interviews I conducted with Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, I listened to stories about how before World War II Jews and Lithuanians and Poles and Germans and Russians lived in Lithuania peacefully, side by side, for centuries. Then, during World War II, during the four-year Nazi occupation of Lithuania, ninety percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis along with local help. At the same time, other Lithuanians sheltered and hid Jews. There are no Jewish graves in Antakalnis Cemetery, however. The Jewish cemetery is located in the center of Vilnius and was destroyed during the Soviet occupation.
During the years of the Soviet occupation people could not openly celebrate All Soul’s Day, a holiday in Catholic countries where families visit the graves of their loved ones and decorate them with carnations and candles. In fact, my good friend, Dalia, now a mother of six, was arrested when she was a student, on November 1, 1987, by the KGB and almost expelled from Vilnius University for secretly lighting candles and placing them on the grave of the great Lithuanian poet and 19th century nationalist leader, Jonas Basanavičius. A year later the Lithuanian communist party, in an attempt to placate the rapidly growing independence movement, allowed people to visit their family graves on All Souls Day. Today All Souls Day is an official state holiday and schools and businesses shut down for the entire week so that families can travel to their home villages to honor their ancestors.
Every November 1st, Antakalnis Cemetery is flooded in a sea of candles carried by people who come to the cemetery after dark to visit the graves of their family members and the graves of people they admire. My brother once flew into Vilnius on All Souls night and saw thousands of twinkling candles down below in Antakalnis Cemetery from the airplane window.
When I fly out of Vilnius, I look down from the oval of the airplane window at the patch of forest green where I know the Antakalnis Cemetery lies. I think of my grandparents lying beneath the deep dark, under thick vines that I dug up from my friend Virginia’s garden and replanted on their graves, a tangled green blanket to comfort them. While living in Vilnius, there have been days that I have lain across my grandparents’ grave and cried—like a character out of a nineteenth century novel.
A few years ago, I flew into Vilnius very late from London on the night of All Soul’s Day. Although it was already ten o’clock, I asked Thomas, who is French and not familiar with Lithuanian culture, if he would mind visiting the cemetery with me. I had bought candles a week before and had set them aside.
“You want to visit the cemetery ten o’clock at night?” he asked quizzically.
I explained the tradition. Although it was unfamiliar to him, for my sake he agreed to go. We parked at the small parking lot at the foot of the hill and walked through the ink black night to my grandparents’ grave. By five o’clock, when darkness descends, this cemetery is packed, making it difficult to get up the hill at anything faster than a crawl. Now the cemetery was deserted. Only candles flickered in the darkness surrounding us.
I lit three candles and set them down on my grandparent’s grave. Thomas gazed around him at the sea of candles flickering in the night. Many of the graves were covered with dozens, even hundreds, of candles.
“Laima, why did you bring so few candles for your grandparents?” Thomas asked.
“One for the father, one for the son, one for the Holy Ghost,” I answered, my Catholic upbringing kicking in.
“Your grandfather was a great man,”Thomas said reflectively. “He was a leader, like Martin Luther King. He deserves more than three candles.”
At Thomas’s insistence we drove down the hill in search of a supermarket that was still open. We went to three supermarkets before we found one that stayed open late and had not run through their stock of candles. Thomas bought an entire case. We returned to the cemetery, climbed back up the dark hill, and spent half the night patiently lighting each candle until my grandparents’ grave was bathed in light.
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.