One of many graves decorated for Day of The Dead. Targu Mures, Romania

One of many graves decorated for Day of The Dead. Targu Mures, Romania

Like I said yesterday, Halloween isn’t a huge deal in Transylvania. Day of the Dead is what it’s all about. It’s a day to remember the dead, honor them and in some ways, hang out with them . . . give ’em a little love.

On Halloween, the day before the official Day of the Dead, our host Carolyn took us to visit Ed, her dear departed husband. His grave sits high on a hill overlooking their little village and house, just like he had wanted in life. We three were loaded down each with a large basket and a big rock. Two of us hauled giant baskets of cut flowers and the other basket carried our lunch. The mission: afternoon party in the graveyard with Ed.

To get to Ed’s grave we tromped through thorns, weeds and a three hundred year old churchyard. We passed by one horse, five cows and an entire flock of sheep. Up, up and up we went through fields littered with gnawed bones strewn here and there. That’s when I saw two dogs. Multiple people have warned me about wild dogs in Transylvania and even Carolyn said that you can’t trust the shepherd’s dogs: they’re trained to kill. Great. My knees went to jelly.

Digging in the dirt . . .

Digging in the dirt . . .

Carolyn had us each collect a big rock from the village road to add to the outline of Ed’s grave, but I’m thinking now the rock must’ve been double duty in case we needed to kill a mean old sheepdog. I was scared but Carolyn just kept walking slowly up toward the graveyard, saying, “Nice doggie.” What else could I do but follow? I mean, running away would just make their chasing instinct kick in. I kept my big rock hoisted high in the air just in case. I’m happy to report that none of us are dead or got bitten.

Matt and I each took a pair of shears and cut all the weeds from around Ed’s grave, tossing them down the side of the hill. Carolyn got to work with a trowel and dug out the middle, getting all the grass and roots out, digging down a few inches til we just had a plot of plain dirt. We added our dog-bashing rocks and re-aligned all the other big rocks from past graveyard parties back into a border for the grave. I draped my scarf on Ed’s grave as a little flag of color. We thought he’d like that.

Carolyn told us about the day he died and how in Transylvania they didn’t have to embalm him. They just dressed him right away before he got stiff and later put him in a pine box and buried him. I found a couple of worms and old snail shells as I worked the dirt above him and thought, “Wow, this is really the life cycle at work.” Those worms and snails could have been eating Ed at one time for all I know. I honestly tried not to think about it too hard though.

But up there on that hill, digging in the dirt six feet above a non-embalmed body in a pine box . . . in the wind, leaves falling, autumn chill in the air, the sheep bleating below – I felt a sense of peace I’ve never felt in a graveyard before. And a profound connection with the Earth and the cycle of life and death. We talked about how in America, we view the dead body as simply a shell – not our loved one – how we just dump it in the graveyard and forget about them. The visceral feeling of tending a grave with my gloved hands in dirt connected me to my own dead loved ones and how I’m a part in the cycle too.

We ate our lunch right there in grass next to Ed’s grave. Carolyn told us about Ed, what he liked, how he was, his favorite things, his life. It was nice. We kept saying things like, “Hey Ed, how are ya?” and just sort of talking to him. I suggested a design for the flowers. Then after lunch we got to work, poking the flowers down in the turned up dirt. Doesn’t Ed’s grave look nice?

The next day at dusk, on the actual Day of The Dead, we headed to two cemeteries in town with a hundred tea lite candles. The atmosphere on the streets was social, like a big town festival – people everywhere with flowers, holding paper cones of roasted chestnuts, piping hot right out of rusty burn barrel grills. Since we’d decorated Ed’s grave the day before, we wanted to give some love to darkened graves that didn’t have any families to leave flowers or candles. The whole entire graveyard was full of flickering lights of candles near and far, thousands of candles. It was more than beautiful. Families gathered with all ages from babies and toddlers to the elderly and everyone in between. The mood wasn’t quite somber, and not quite happy. Just content. Death is a part of life here.

Community altar for Day of The Dead

Community altar for Day of The Dead

And there we were, looking to light up the dark spots of forgotten graves with four candles each. I don’t know why four candles, that’s just the way it is. We brushed leaves off of cold cement slabs, lovingly said the dead ones’ names aloud, said, “We’re thinking of you,” lit four candles and moved on. I had loved ones on my mind. So at the second graveyard, at a big display, I lit candles for K2 and Khan, two friends who’ve left this world too early. And I lit candles for both sets of grandparents. With one set of grandparents, I was thinking specifically of my grandma Phyllis who raised me. She wasn’t my dad’s birth mother, but she loved him and all of us very much. I didn’t intend to forget my dad’s birth mother, grandma Roberta, but she never entered my mind. Not even a little bit. But I loved her too.

I slept well that night, but that morning, grandma Roberta appeared in my dreams quite clearly, just her face looking right at me. And then I woke up. She wasn’t upset that I’d forgotten her. No bad energy or juju. Just her poking her head into my world for a minute to say, “Here I am. Don’t forget about me.”