Day of the Dead
Image by judge_mental
The day after Halloween is known for nothing more in Britain than the results of excessive sugar consumption and wiping egg from your front door.
But in Slovenia as in other Catholic countries 1 November is the Day of the Dead, a tradition European Catholics are wholly unaware evolved from the Aztecs’ worship of their deity Mictecacihuatl.
My exploration of Slovenia’s afterlife party began at a small graveyard in Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest city. I had set off with a rucksack containing some equipment I thought might come in useful – a mouth organ, the skipping rope, and a cassette player. For jewellery I chose exclusive bracelets by Voodoo Chicken.
I have no Slovenian relatives, dead or otherwise, so this was never going to be more than reconnaissance for a Slovenian death. I am secure in my atheism. Being around religious people no longer irks me. You shouldn’t have sex with them, of course. Not really speaking Slovenian offers further protection from any strange ideas that might be floating around.
A few people were pottering around various plots but it was pretty dead. Like Peter Pan, the cemetery was clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees. A woman stood over one grave smoking a fag. I found the tomb of the Klinger family.
Last opened in 1955 it was unattended. I enjoyed Klinger’s transvestite combat-dodging Korean War character in M.A.S.H. so I stood for a minute with the Klingers before heading off across town to a bigger, more successful graveyard.
Here there were many more people, both types. Familiar surnames from Facebook leapt out at me from a worryingly high proportion of the neatly-rowed monuments.
No beanstalks here. But would I see anyone I knew? Yes! Here was the plumber who sold me some copper pipe at a quick profit before disappearing forever without doing the work. But that is but a footnote in the sagas of Slovenian plumbing.
1.8288 METRES UNDER
Everyone was looking miserable. I wanted to cheer them up with some skipping, but it would send little stones flying at everyone. I mulled over the choice between blues harp and getting out the cassette to play "Fool For A Cigarette" by Ry Cooder.
But the sheer weight of this odd, organised death cult made any attempt at jollity pointless.
It was obvious that the purpose of this gathering had nothing to do with reminding us to live life to the full, especially not here and especially not now.
By two o’clock the gravewatching was going full pelt. This was just a lot of standing around in family groups though. There were no outward signs of grief, no crying, no hankies. No meeting the people from the grave next door. For a moment I thought a woman might be wiping away a tear. But she just had something in her eye. On death as in life Slovenians are as buttoned up as ever.
Burning of a good quantity of saponified fats was under way. At least some of the recent improvements to the European Capital of Chicken’s stink may be attributable to Slovenia’s highly developed memorial candle industry.
BACK FROM THE GRAVY
Like the fats, the chances of pulling a rich widow or a cynical young slut were to evaporate. The few more glamorous widows present had already spent the money on perms and leatherwear. As for guerillas in the midst, Ptuj has no edge players to keep these type of proceedings in balance.
I took a seat near the obligatory suffering Jesus. If only, in real life, he had been provided with a little roof to keep off the elements, as here, he might have suffered longer. At this venue his upturned-V-shaped canopy had vicious-looking serrated edges like a log saw, suggesting that Our Saviour was about to be bitten in two by a copper crocodile, on top of everything else.
As I pondered the meaning of this, a team arrived to erect PA speakers on either side of Jesus, in a parody of where the criminals are supposed to go. Marjan, owner of Catholic-metal pub Shamerocks, went by. An enormous howl of feedback almost jolted me off the bench. "Ena, dva, ena, dva." Crocodile Rock Jesus seemed a real possibility.
The sun’s rays belted down unseasonably on the dark-clad worshippers. One or two alcoholics in various shades of religious purple shuffled by. But widows outnumbered widowers by a considerable margin. By now the meaty aroma of cheap candles was becoming quite sickening. More feedback sent the vibe lurching in the direction of Dead concert.
Ritualised misery edged into maudlin despair. The dead themselves, unconcerned with their fetishisation, slept on. "What are we to do?" the expressions seemed to say. People talked a little. But there did not seem to be any fresh ideas on how to prevent more of this sort of thing.
They died not from environmental or genetic causes, but from Acts of God. Helplessness, futility, and insurance premiums seemed to be the order of the day.
DUDS FOR THE DEAD
Evidently a goodly part of the pain and stress of the Day of the Dead comes from deciding what to wear.
Slovenians, often drab at the best of times, can however play with drab. A tall blonde in fishnets and black and white plaid brightened proceedings ever so slightly. Or why not go grey: here was a lad in Desert Storm camoflauge. Ladies vied for Dead-glam with bauble necklaces from H&M, alligator skin boots, a binbag-flavour puffa jacket and a black spandex top from the Nolans era.
Priests appeared and disappeared into the little building for their quick change. Would they emerge dressed as Sister Wendy and Captain Hook? What about the Lost Boys? If I struck up The Sailor’s Hornpipe on the harmonica would the crowd these priests control at that moment come to life, if only to kill me?
There was little or no eye contact or interaction between priests and crowd. This religion involves a lot of looking down. A survey of priests’ footwear revealed that sandals, hush puppies, and pigskin were in. In Catholic circles it seems brown shoes do make it. Inside the chapel a choir was kicking off.
The procession of relatively colourful priests emerged and the choir, like Dylan, sold out and went electric. The fat churchmen – not all looking like the kind of character you would not trust alone with your nine-year-old son or daughter if you were some kind of naive country bumpkin – lined up for incantations and there was some very nice singing of "Naj na mir gospod" from the poor people in jeans and hoodies, as a woman in velveteen strides and lace-up stiletto dominatrix boots picked her way across the gravel with a big kinky shiny black clutch bag.
HERE TO DIE…
As a priest took the mike to deliver some advice to the assembled mourners, several people seemed to make a point of leaving. Coincidence maybe, or perhaps they didn’t get any practical help from the church before their dear departed, and they weren’t in the mood to start listening now.
If so, one wonders why they came, on this particular day, or at all. This is symptomatic of the ambivalent relationship with Rome here in Slovenia, where even the angriest atheists unblinkingly do Catholic things. Obediently and without question.
Atheism is the fashionable top-coat, a badge of modernity. Disappointingly, this is image atheism, devoid of argument, spineless. Deep down in their Y-fronts and panties Slovenians have their metaphysics and their mummies all mixed up – and you can’t get more Catholic than that.
Priests began moving through the crowd. A man flinched as a fat one flicked allegedly holy water in his face rather aggressively, the way you would dry a paint brush. You can’t be too careful when vampires are about.
After a gigantic monk had had his turn, a priest with a very deep voice got the crowd muttering. They seemed to know the words. Flanked by his fellow pirates right there under the mast/cross, his Blair-ish wavering hypnotic cadences were amplified through some miracle into a monotone in glorious mono via 250 watts per channel of Golgotha, bringing into focus the fear and trembling our Catlick cousins love so much.
A sea of conformist faces droned away and the three great hepcats, oče, sin and sveti duh, were duly honoured. It could as easily have been Marx, Engels and Tito. And if either trio might have preferred to bury the other, all six were united against the most dangerous ideological enemy Yugoslavia ever faced.
A BIG LYE
Although I did hear "incesta" mentioned it could have been something about a road. Anyway, no-one jumped up and shouted "You ruined my life!" While there was no great enthusiasm from either ministers or ministered, neither was there any sign of all this going away. Everyone was trapped in the cycle, paralysed, no more able to decide what to do next than the occupants of the graves themselves.
All in all a sea of utter dreariness, on which the faithful are destined to sail, directionless, for some time to come.
Is there anything the church might try to liven up this unpleasant occasion? I’m sure the Aztec Queen of the Underworld would be the first to offer social approval were some ergot to take root in the sacramental Jesus munchies, or the heady aroma of kaneh-bosem gave them inspiration.
How can you believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that comes from God only? Because doing what society expects you to do – and for no other reason – helps you to stop other people having fun, and it helps them to stop yours. God isn’t available just now to interfere in your sexual happiness. But your relatives and neighbours have a direct line.
Christianization of the Slavs took plenty of alcohol – it makes them too wobbly to run. The viticultural revival behind this was a Minorite monky business. Choose this mental illness and you can postpone all the fun you might have had in this life until the "next one". With brains softened and final destination assured it seems many in the region, for genetic and alcoholic reasons, just can’t wait to get there. These days our credulous country drunks follow a gung-ho pesticide tradition just to make sure.
SUZIE WENT AND LEFT US FOR SOME FOREIGN GUY
Go on and get it over with then: spend your one and only certifiable existence mooching around all your yesterdays and selfishly saving up for a comfortable eternity. We’re not waiting for the last laugh. We’ll have our laughs right now. Is that a Celestial Being, Widow Twankey? It’s behind you! Oh no it isn’t!
As the rank smell of burnt fat lingered in the warm November air, I wondered if I would die here. And in the unlikely event that I would inhabit one of these expensive looking family tombs, whether anyone would join me, either inside or outside.
Probably not. I will be undisturbed, like the Klingers. And about this I feel no more sentiment before, than I will afterwards.
As the faithful made the short journey from the supernatural to the supermarket car park across the road, I paused for a piss at the petrol station. Robbie Williams’ "Feel" was playing on the forecourt, its mock pop profundity a strange contrast to the mumbo-jumbo I had just witnessed, and yet NOT.
I scare myself to death,
That’s why I keep on running.
Before I’ve arrived, I can see myself coming.
It was a return from a truly fantastical "explanation" of existence to the reassuringly mundane reality of charcoal briquettes and damned big bags of Chappi dog food, although here too the candles were piled high.
That probably makes sense on Slovenia’s roads.