Luminația is probably the most multicultural and ecumenical celebration in Romania, although no one seems to acknowledge it.
Every year on November 1st, Hungarians, Saxons, Serbians, Bulgarians and Romanians mingle together in the alleyways of cemeteries displaying a sense of fraternity that seems impalpable any other day of the year. It’s the day when the battle-axe is buried and everyone becomes a little bit more alike.
Since I was little, I’ve always liked Luminația. Back then, I would accompany my mother to stuff my face with cozonac, see the glowing cemetery and visit the grave of a Grandpa I had never met. I remember the sweet bread given out by the people at the neighboring graves was much better than ours, because they had more raisins.
This year I pulled out my 1974 Pegasus bicycle and decided to rekindle my childhood by freezing my hands to the handlebar and riding to Luminația at the Mănăștur and Crișan cemeteries.
I start snooping around the Crișan cemetery around noon. There’s a lot of agitation, comparable to the amount of garbage that has been piled up into a small, colorful hill. Everyone is hard at work, but there is no piety about it.
The men, who are wearing hats and outdated suits, dutifully shovel dirt on top of the graves, gather fallen leaves and clean the surrounding area. The women, dressed in warm coats and armed with brooms, candles and chrysanthemum bouquets, hurry across the street on red at intersections, just to get to the cemetery a few moments sooner.
I experience a craving to smell the fragrant flowers. This smell marks the beginning of winter in Cluj, likewise the scent of roasted chestnuts on an open fire marks the beginning of fall. More often than not, when global warming hadn’t become quite so global, the burning candles would melt away the snow piled up in the cemetery.
The opportunity to whiff the strong perfume of chrysanthemums was offered to me around 3:00 in the afternoon, when I accompanied my wife to the graves of her family members. She is also equipped with a broom, a paper bag for leaves, candles and of course, a bouquet of chrysanthemums.
I carry the flowers with an air of stoicism. When we arrive in the cemetery, I shove my face into the bouquet, breathe in deeply and exclaim: “Yikes, winter is coming! Let’s all move to a warm country!”
As afternoon gives way to evening, the atmosphere becomes excessively sober. Faces grow pale in the dimming light of the candles, as families huddled around tombstones remember the lives that have been lost.
The least of them all is that of our little guinea pig named Fluffy, who is now resting in an improvised grave in an eternal dwelling place known only by yours truly. At the plea of my youngest son who loved the little guinea pig with so much ferocity that he wanted her to have a resting place in a real cemetery, I relented and became a gravedigger. There’s also a hamster buried in a cemetery in Feleac, under a handmade wooden cross, but that’s a story for another day.
Then there’s the story of Claudia, who has a dazzling white, marble tombstone. Her grave is now adorned with flowers. Blinking candles arranged into the shape of a cross rest on her grave.
When I was a teenager, she was the smartest and prettiest natural blonde in all the high schools. She died at 20 years of age, as a result of a simple operation to correct a deviated septum. At that time medical malpractice was an abstract concept.
Then there is my wife’s uncle Victor’s story. He was a handsome and intelligent student who froze to death in the Fagaras Mountains one August day. His girlfriend was so devastated that she swore she would never marry, a promise she holds to this day.
Or the story of the child who died while sledding down the hill on the street beside the cemetery. Or the story of the young Hungarian girl whose parents erected a life-size sculpture of her. On foggy days, the statue looks like the image of Christ ascending to the heavens.
It’s Delia’s excruciating story that brings my experience in the Crișan cemetery to an end. She had just died of an unexpected medical complication. Walking through an alley, I bumped into her father. He is the image of sorrow. Armed with a small broom, candles, a lighter and white chrysanthemums arranged into large, beautiful bouquets, he says to me:
“You know, my son Florin went to New Zealand and my wife very is sick. Delia was our only support, a wonderful girl with a contagious joie de vivre. For many years, we came here to the Luminația together. A year ago, I would’ve never been able to fathom that on November 1st, 2017, I’d be coming here for her rather than with her.”
I watch with sadness as Mr. H covers Delia’s tombstone with fallen needles and then arranges the flowers and lights the candles before stepping back. Afterwards, he mindfully gathers his bags and disappears down the alleyway, overcome by sorrow.
Ride to the other side of town
I saunter out of the cemetery to my ragged old bike and begin the 6-kilometer ride in search of a slightly merrier cemetery.
Oh, I would love to be able to cut through the Faculty of Agriculture’s yard like I used to with my friend Marius when both of us believed ourselves to be Tarzan. The only problem is that the guards have since changed and I can’t take this kind of risk while mounted on a medieval bicycle.
I ride up the street, passing by the Cultural Center where I folk danced from first to eighth grade. I ride by Vitadulci, where my parents used to buy me vanilla ice cream on Sundays, provided I had abstained from laughing in church.
I finally make it to the cemetery. I shimmy my way through the Kürtőskalács (chimney cakes), beggars, icon sellers, candles and piles of chrysanthemums. The atmosphere feels like a peaceful fairgrounds.
The van belonging to the Angel’s funeral service sits with the engine running. I don’t want to count myself among the passengers, so I ease on my brakes and slow down. Thank God, today I’ve escaped death!
An animated priest is standing in front of the chapel, reciting from a long list of the faithfully departed. The place is buzzing with people.
A memory from the past suddenly flashes before my eyes. My friend Cristi and I used exploit this day by mimicking the “Lord have mercy” prayer, while we’d steal a few pieces of cake from the mourners. Once in a while, we grabbed a shot or two of pălincă. Those were biblical days, when no one asked to see your ID card before consuming alcohol.
At this point, I have no agenda or objective. My only desire is to rediscover this place that I still know like the back of my hand. I want to make sure everything is in its place and that my favorite funeral plaque is still standing: “Pilgrim, I was once you and you will soon be me!”
The mood is one of contagious joy, peppered with bits and pieces of absurd dialogue seeping together to form the perfect impression of this place. A balm anoints my heart.
Three white-haired gentleman holding pink cups in their hands are leaning on a tombstone and having a debate. A friend walks by them slowly.
“Hey, come have a shot with us!”
“Are you out of your mind? I won’t even drink when I’m dead. I had two heart attacks last year, one after the other. Let me just tell you…” (this is followed by a detailed and lengthy description of both of the heart attacks, including the dialogue that took place between the paramedics).
“Come on, take a shot for Gligor, God rest his soul. I’m a professor in alcohol, hear me out, I don’t want to do you any harm.”
Just a little further away, a couple is reciting the inventory of the neighboring lots. His mouth is full but she makes up for his silence by speaking enough for the both of them:
“Look, here is Jenu from Mantaca with his wife. Over there are the Burics and behind them is the Caralaba family. That man’s son left his pregnant wife…”
I run into the Cioban, Lingurar, Nerghes and Perde families. They came with their children, grandchildren and grandparents. They huddle together, light candles, open bottles and speak loudly. They’re not shy about swearing out loud.
Suddenly, the cold permeates the atmosphere. The candles start to flicker brighter while the beggars weave their way through the tombstones like snakes. All around, snippets of profound conversations can be heard regarding time (oh, how quickly it passes) and life (this is it, there’s nothing you can do about it).
With difficulty, I begin to recognize my former classmates from primary school: Revnic, who managed to fail third grade. Then there’s Pipas, who punched me in the face out of the blue while were were playing and Lili, who knew the song Ia-ti, mireasa, ziua buna!, commas and all.
For a few minutes, I transition from observer to participant. I light a red candle and place it on my grandparents’ grave, convinced that it will disappear by tomorrow.
On my way out, my stare falls on cozonac at a nearby sweets table. Before reaching the table, I stop to hear a poem being zealously recited by a priest. The listeners seem to be very joyful as priest speaks:
“In the same way as we are full of longing for those who have gone before us, they too look upon us full of longing. They pray for us, unworthy as we are. So let’s bring into mind that this is a special day, this day of the Luminația, the Illumination to recollect ourselves and allow memories to speak to us. Your candle makes a small opening into the heavens.”
Without any warning, a woman extends a large piece of cozonac towards me. “May God forgive him and may he rest in peace,” I say, instinctively, while beginning to chew.
“May the Lord forgive all of the departed and may He have mercy on us all,” says a voice behind me.
That’s the last phrase I hear during Luminația, 2017. I stop, write it down, word for word.