Easter is a time when many of us choose to celebrate with friends and family, and to remember those we have loved and lost. It is a time for reflection, renewal, and remembrance; many cultures across the world hold the belief that spirits return during Easter, allowing them to connect with the family who have passed on.
Cemeteries have long nurtured the connection between communities and those they’ve lost, with Easter being the time many come together. Here are some traditions from across the globe that honour the dead and celebrate life.
In south-east Wales, they celebrate Sul y Blodau (Flowering Sunday), a tradition that originated in the late 19th Century. Sul y Blodau is a day for grave decorations, with families gathering to decorate and memorialise their ancestors with colour and joy. The day occurs most commonly on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), with the demand for flowers often becoming so great that they are sent from London.
This tradition grew in the early 20th Century, from south-east Wales to much of Wales and over the border into England. Sul y Blodau is still practised today in Wales and parts of England; however, in modern times, the decoration isn’t only limited to Easter and will often happen throughout the year.
In Greece, the tradition can vary as much as the people, with differing customs followed throughout the millennia changing from city to city. In Heraklion, Crete, celebrations revolve around a feast that isn’t only for the living. Preparations begin on Good Friday before gathering on Easter Monday with food and wine for a feast at their local cemetery. The ritual not only honours the memory of the dead; it also spreads the message of resurrection.
The village of Rizana celebrates with a similar tradition, though for them, it takes place on the Sunday of St. Thomas, the week after Easter Sunday. Gathering at the cemetery in the village, people bring fresh flowers and food, coming to feast on top of the graves of their loved ones. The tradition, which goes back to the Homeric epics, isn’t a day of mourning but one that cherishes smiles, love, and traditional foods. Families surround this often-sombre place, bringing joy to cemeteries in a tradition of remembrance that emphasises celebration.
In Ukraine, the celebrations over Easter are not for the faint of heart, with Easter festivities lasting from Palm Sunday to the week after Easter. Families will visit graveyards bringing baskets with food and gifts for their ancestors who have passed. Often a religious ceremony, priests will accompany families to bless the graves.
The tradition, called “Radonitsa” (day of rejoicing), is adopted from the Pagans, who believed that the dead were pleased when their relatives visited their graves and that they remember them with joyfulness, songs, and narratives about their life on earth. Over time traditions change, and while many still celebrate with feasts and prayers, most celebrate the week after Easter, with different regions celebrating on differing days. Yet, even as traditions change over the years, the love and joy of the day and time with family is ever-present.
As in Greece and Ukraine, in Georgia, sharing meals with loved ones is an important part of their Easter traditions. If you were to pass by a cemetery on the day of Orthodox Easter, you’d see celebrations with picnics, wine, and passion. Instead of treating the day as a time to mourn, Georgians see it as a time to celebrate and reunite with those they have lost.
As a country with a high population of Orthodox Christians, the day also symbolises Christ’s rebirth and eternal life thereafter to many. Using madder roots and onion peels, they dye eggs bright red to symbolise Christ. Bringing these eggs to the graveyards at Easter, they will light a candle at the gravestone and roll a red egg across the grave with the exclamation “Christ is rising.” This is repeated three times, and then a table is set up as families raise drinks for their loved ones. Wine will traditionally be poured on the grave during these ceremonies; doing so connects them to their loved ones. It encourages the hope that they won’t be alone in the afterlife because their descendants will visit their resting places and feast alongside them too, one day.
A great contrast to many countries, the festivities are rarely sad or mournful. Instead, they focus on the joy of sitting with family, of time spent together, with those there and those they’ve lost. The boundary between the living and the dead fades away on Easter, and for a time, they’re together once more.
In the far northeast of Australia, The Guugu Yimidhirr people of Hope Vale celebrate Easter with weeklong traditions, not unlike those overseas. The traditions are held up by four key pillars, faith, history, family, and spirit (known as “wawu” in their traditional language).
Easter in Hope Vale is an exciting time that brings their community together. Coming together, the community spends days preparing the church, accepting flower donations from their community’s gardens, and spending their time remembering their loved ones. Boiling chicken eggs with beetroot, as their grandmothers did for them, generations of a family will sit together, laughing as they decorate their eggs for Easter.
In the days before Good Friday, families will visit their loved ones to prepare their graves, taking time to tidy the neglected graves of strangers whose families hadn’t been able to come. Their faith gives hope in eternal life, and many in the community finding the holiday allows them to get together to show care for one another and feel close to those they love and have lost. Helping one another and remembering their loved ones is a priority for the community, especially on Easter. They share flowers from their gardens, taking the time to show the importance of each grave.
Deep historical traditions across the world demonstrate the significant role cemeteries play in creating and supporting their community, hosting ritual events that bring people together to connect with their past and celebrate life with those they love. Spaces where the community can gather and ensures that those buried are not forgotten. Honour the dead by celebrating life.
Traditions across the world on Easter are as varied as the people who celebrate, but there are themes in common; love for those they’ve lost, joy at the opportunity to connect, and the faith that those who come after them will treat them as they have those from before. Celebration of life is often more important than mourning those they’ve lost, and flowers on gravestones are a simple act of love and kindness that seems universal across so many cultures.
Easter is a time for remembering those we’ve loved, and commemorating them with a visit, or some flowers, to keep them company can be a wonderful way to connect even with those who have left us.