The Beautiful Cemeteries of Poland
Cemeteries in Poland give the appearance of candlelit gardens from a distance. It is obvious the Polish people place a high priority on honoring their now deceased loved ones. History, however, has treated most cemeteries in Poland cruelly. The destructive force of time and numerous wars have left their mark. Of some not even a trace is left, while others can be found only with the help of a local guide. Old, forgotten cemeteries may be located in forests, on hills, in meadows, or, less often, among town buildings.
Most cemeteries in Poland are Roman Catholic. Beginning in the 10th century, they were located on church grounds near the parish sanctuary. By the 14th century, cemeteries were established outside the limits of localities for those who professed other faiths.
There were the many reasons for establishing cemeteries on the outskirts of communities. Close proximity of cemeteries to dwellings had an unfavorable effect on the soil and on the water drawn from wells. As early as the late 18th century, sanitary regulations began placing restrictions on burials in churches and their vicinity, and these places were reserved only for clergymen.
The spatial structure of cemeteries often follows a traditional plan. Most often pathways are in the form of a cross, and at the crossing point there is a chapel or an actual cross. Large cemeteries were situated on hills. The significance of this was both sanitary (protecting the underground waters) and symbolic (closer to heaven).
As a rule, there is no chronological order in grave placement. Graves are mixed as a result of the destruction of old graves and the acquisition of new plots. Sometimes there are sections for children’s graves and modern graves. It’s not unusual for old, forgotten monuments to stand on the fringes of cemeteries. Lone, nameless crosses are a common sight in Polish cemeteries.
Many graves were destroyed as a result of legal regulations in the 1950s. A statute was enacted stating that graves neglected, abandoned, and not paid for were to be eliminated. The existing plots were to be reused for new burials. According to the regulation, one could bury the next body in place of the previous one after 20 years had passed. In practice, this often meant the old plates were removed and the next body was buried on the remnants of the old one. The bones in the abandoned graves might also be placed in an ossuary.
The descendants of emigrants from more than a century ago have little chance of finding the graves of their great-grandparents. It was often the case that an entire family emigrated, and all that remained were old folks and distant relatives. After a period of time, there would be no one left to care or pay for the graves of ancestors. Most old graves were marked with birch crosses that decayed over time.
The oldest graves in rural and district cemeteries date from the mid-19th century. Older graves may exist but are mainly those of prominent landowners and priests. Only their monuments have withstood the test of time.
World War II and the decade after it were times of the greatest destruction and devastation of cemeteries. During the war, Catholic and Jewish cemeteries suffered the most. The postwar period was devastating for Protestant cemeteries in retaliation after five years of German occupation.
Cemeteries of other faiths, in turn, were affected by the political and ideological systems of the times. The Socialist government gave permission, to some extent, for plundering what was left behind by “those who were evicted.” In practice this took various forms. Materials from dismantled churches and cemeteries were exploited by local informers as a way to get rich quick. Parish groups sometimes used materials for modernizing villages in bridge or road construction.
Polish people care a great deal about family graves. The average family visits the cemetery several times a year, usually on anniversaries and before Christmas and Easter. The most important days to visit are the first and second of November. November 1st is All Saints’ Day, and the 2nd is All Souls’ Day. On those days observant Poles set out on a journey to the burial places of their ancestors. It is an occasion for a likely family reunion.
As Polish people lived, so they were buried. The manner of memorializing the dead depended on several factors: local culture and customs, the predominant fashion at the time, relative wealth, and available resources. Burial customs will be addressed in a future article.
When we were in Poland in 2016, we lit candles in the decorative lanterns at the graves of several of my ancestors. There were so many familiar names on other graves, but we didn’t have time to verify if they were our ancestor’s siblings or cousins. Jan and Jadwiga Bryk, my great grandparents’ graves represent some of the oldest people born in this cemetery. The Niwiska cemetery has a searchable website.
We also visited the cemeteries of Mark’s ancestors in Lutcza and Zawoja. The graves of these more distant ancestors were no longer evident, but many family names were on the gravestones. We were convinced that some of these people were cousins or other descendants of Mark’s ancestors. Perhaps future research will reveal more family connections.
• All Photos taken by Mark and Donna Gawell
at our ancestors’ church cemeteries in Niwiska, Lutcza and Zawoja