One of the most interesting aspects which results from immigration is the introduction of customs. In some cases these are completely new, such as the colourful Divali, in others they are re-introductions. Parts of Newark’s unique All Souls ceremony is one such re-introduction.
On the last Sunday in October (rather than the 1st November – All Souls) the Polish community from Nottinghamshire and beyond congregate at Newark Cemetery to remember the contribution of their ancestors. Indeed, Newark cemetery is testament to the sacrifice that the Polish community gave to the greater good and the ceremony is very moving.
Organised by Newark Town Council on behalf of the Polish Air Force Association, it is a moving remembrance. Why is it here? Newark is one of the largest UK cemetery which contains non-national service graves. The graves are centred around the Polish airmen’s memorial cross associated with the former grave of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish wartime leader General who was killed in a plane crash in 1943 and could not be buried on home soil. He was repatriated in 1992 however. Around this time the ceremony was instigated I believe.
The custom starts with the slow silent procession behind the priest carrying a cross and current and old military men and women carrying their standards. Heads are held down in deference as the congregation move slowly to the centre of the cemetery.
Here the service collects around the memorial cross. Here local dignitaries such as the Newark Mayor and, and the chairman of Newark and Sherwood District Council, and national figures – the chairman of the Polish Air Force memorial committee, Polish ambassador and Polish Consular Services. All here to give their thanks.
The service is undertaken in both English and Polish, with local Catholic priest Father Krzysztof Kawczynski saying prayers for fallen after which a roll of honour was read. Wreaths were laid at General Sikorski’s former grave. I was struck by the poignancy of the Last Post, whose one-minute’s silence was broken by a soft rain, falling like tears for the fallen.
Of course the service to this point is similar to every other remembrance service. However then the most amazing part of the custom begins; the congregation place candles – some in specially made jars around the monument and the individual graves. With 400 Polish service men buried here the effect is incredible and very thought provoking. Recently other service personnel, fatalities of bombings and war victims of both wars have been remembered resulting in the awe inspiring flick of more than 600 candles as the evening falls.
Why candles? Catholic belief stated that souls were in purgatory and could spend many years there before eventing heaven. Thus of this day prayers of remembrance would be said for those who died on this day. This would help those poor souls to move on. As such on All Souls in Britain, before the Reformation, it was marked by prayers for the dead, visiting graves of the ancestors and the lighting of candles. The Protestants do not believe in purgatory and as such a custom fell out of usage. However, it continued in Catholic countries and as such was brought back into England via many Catholics and in particular in Nottinghamshire the large Polish community and their descendents.
Once the service is over, many proud Polish men light flares and sing the National Anthem. For the custom is an opportunity for Polish pride and also affixed to the railings are banners of local Polish football teams and groups.
If ever there is a need to give evidence of the considerable contribution the Polish gave for freedom and democracy, no better illustration can be given than this poignant custom…a small token of our eternal gratitude.