WARSAW: Popcorn at the cemetery, anyone? How about a Mickey Mouse balloon? Or socks, perfume, cotton candy, maybe kielbasa sausage straight from the grill?
Poles are visiting family graves en masse this weekend for All Saints’ Day, which falls on Sunday, leaving flowers and lanterns for their dear departed while taking time to reflect.
But many will also indulge in the countless pop-up stalls across the country, which have increasingly put a carnival spin on the solemn holiday.
“The things I see around cemeteries sometimes, it boggles the mind. You couldn’t dream up more curious things,” said Cezary Banaszek, a Warsaw priest.
The 53-year-old spent a decade at the church within the capital’s Brodno Cemetery, whose surrounding streets are flooded each year by wreaths and lanterns, but also food trucks and coffee carts, CD-sellers and balloon men — the works.
He acknowledges, “Business is business” but said there is a deeper meaning to the holiday that the Church is forever trying to emphasize in the devoutly Catholic country.
“It may bother some people, but not me. They’re just making some extra money,” said Irena Wioletta Jedrzejczak, who haggled down the price of a pair of mittens to 15 zloty (3.50 euros, $4) outside the cemetery.
“And what’s this?” the 73-year-old asked, holding up a meat pounder. She ended up buying two wooden spoons, a loaf of bread and five paczki donuts but decided against a lace tablecloth — too big.
Jedrzejczak moved to Sweden 29 years ago but has been coming back every year to visit her mother’s grave, and while she is at it, she stocks up on items she cannot find at home, fare that started appearing “a few years ago.”
Drawing the line at beer
“During the Communist era you could of course buy lanterns and flowers at the cemetery, but on the whole there really wasn’t much else,” said Warsaw tour guide Jarek Kaczorowski.
“It was rare that you could buy something to eat,” he added, with the exception of snacks like pretzel necklaces and the homemade Panska Skorka candy that gets its name from the smoothness of a maiden’s skin. Those stalls are still there today, even selling their fare right next to graves.
“But after 1989, people began looking for ways to make money,” he told AFP, “so around the year 2000, things totally unrelated to All Saints’ Day began turning up at cemeteries.”
All the “kitsch” is none other than the free market in action, added Kaczorowski, who has even heard stories of people selling underwear.
The carnival-like atmosphere is particularly hopping at Brodno — one of Europe’s largest cemeteries, with over a million dead — but the trend can be seen throughout the country.
When a photo of Hello Kitty balloons at another cemetery appeared on the humor website Wiocha.pl last year, dozens of people chimed in with the unbelievable things they had seen at graveyards.
Another photo of cemetery-goers lining up for popcorn with a cross in the background and the caption “Nothing will ever shock me now” prompted an outpouring of me-toos on the Demotywatory.pl humor site: kebabs in Lublin, corn on the cob in Wroclaw, waffles in Krakow.
“I even saw a Coca-Cola stand,” said Andrzej Nowak, who drives down from the northern city of Gizycko every year to sell paczki donuts from a makeshift umbrella stand at Brodno.
“If someone were to sell beer — now that wouldn’t be right,” the 45-year-old said, adding that he and his wife make about 300 zloty (70 euros, $78) in profit over the weekend.
Lantern-seller Joanna Blaszczyk listed off Halloween masks, bracelets and bread as “inappropriate” fare, adding, “We should be buying lanterns and flowers because those are connected to the cemetery and to paying tribute.”