Hungarians rejoice in their grave obsession

Cult of the dead gives insight into a tragic history
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Hungary's "season of the dead" may be winding to a close, but as dusk falls, Budapest's National Cemetery comes alive with little flickers of light from the candles commemorating some of the country's most famous (and infamous) sons. A couple at the lavish construction honouring Count Batthyany (of 1848 and the abortive anti-Habsburg revolt fame) bow their heads and shed silent tears.

Near by, schoolchildren completed a tour of the graves with a few words from their teacher at the tomb of Janos Kadar, the Communist who rode to power on the back of the Soviet tanks which crushed the 1956 uprising. With politicians, poets and revolutionaries all together, the cemetery serves as a perfect backdrop to Hungary's frequently tragic history and not a day passes without coachloads coming to pay respects. "Remembering the dead keeps us connected to our past," said Jeno Ladanyi, director- general of Budapest's 14 cemeteries. "But we Hungarians are a cemetery- going people ... we like to mourn."

The obsession with the dead is legendary. "See, brethren, with your own eyes what we are, merely dust and ashes are we," run the opening lines of Halotti Beszed, a 12th-century burial sermon drilled into schoolchildren. Much of the country's greatest literature is steeped in references to the dead and dying; the national anthem might be described as a dirge. While other East Europeans took to the streets to overthrow their oppressors in 1989, Hungary celebrated the transfer of power with a funeral: the official reburial of Imre Nagy and other executed heroes of the 1956 uprising whose rehabilitation marked the death-knell of the Communist regime.

For years, moreover, Hungary has had the highest suicide rate in the world. Cemetery-visiting is popular all year round but peaks during the "season of the dead", the three-week period around All Saints' and All Souls' days on 1 and 2 November. Commemorations begin on 23 October, a national holiday marking the 1956 uprising and those who died. They reach a climax on the two holy days, when, having spruced up the family plot, Hungarians lay flowers and wreaths and meditate and read poetry at graves. The devoted carry on for another week or two.

For some Hungarians, part of the explanation for the extraordinary importance of death rituals here is the country's long record of defeats in war - to the Turks, Tartars and Habsburgs - and the failure of the two uprisings of 1848, against the Habsburgs, and in 1956, against the Russians.

"These burial customs are rooted in the collective consciousness," said the Rev Gyula Paradi of Budapest's Ferencvaros Church. "When a nation suffers a series of traumatic losses like Hungary has ... it seems we are always in mourning."

But isn't all this dwelling on the dead a trifle morbid? Certainly, said Zsuzsa Tatrai, an ethnographic researcher at the Hungarian National Academy of Sciences. "Instead of investing all that time, money and energy on the dead, people should really start treating their living family members better while they are still alive."

But others disagree. Eszter Vecsey, an art historian, said the elaborate death and cemetery ceremonies have a unique spiritual and aesthetic quality, reflecting the "rhapsodic" nature of the Hungarian soul. Mr Ladanyi saw it the same way. "The dead can teach us the secrets of life," he said. "Sitting meditating beside a grave, people can consider the successes and failures of one particular individual's life and learn lessons from it. The piety we feel for the dead is passed naturally from one generation to another. It has become part of our culture."