Four-lane highways crisscross the country, while modern gas stations, truck stops, gleaming horizontal and vertical shopping malls, reinvigorated business colleges, and renovated city centers compliment new homes, autos, and a well-dressed, fashion- conscious populace, wearing clothes from around the world.
As we landed in Krakow from our trans-Atlantic flight through Berlin, we noticed the new Hilton hotel being constructed at the John Paul II Airport. A line of a half-a-dozen military helicopters guarded the city from the every growing terrorist threat that the whole world now faces. Despite the global and European Union economic downturn, Poland’s economy is expanding, growing, and strong with new markets for Polish products. Last year alone a quarter of a billion Euros were invested in Malopolska’s technology sector.
American, Asian, African and European Poles are returning from worldwide destinations to invest in their homeland, as it rebuilds to capture its historical place at the center of the continent. Vestiges of the past Poland are nestled among modern glass and steel structures showing that “God’s Playground, the Heart of Europe” has arrived. Poland is a vital and integral member of both the European Union and the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization, while it protects its own and the continent’s sovereignty.
The Polish modernization extends to death. Shortly after our Church wedding thirteen years ago our aunt passed away. There were the days of obligatory prayers including rosaries at the home. Set in the living room, the body lay in repose within a coffin. On the day of the funeral bishops, priests, and the entire community attended the memorial Mass.
Then the hand carried coffin was escorted from Saint Casimir’s Church to the nearby cemetery. There was a public dinner at the Public Elementary School cafeteria hosted by the family. Thus, the family and community celebrated her life, and her son, who had become a priest decades before her funeral.
But in 2014 Polish funeral customs change. At the home of the deceased, neighbors, relatives and family met after the death to pray and say the rosary. However, now the night before the funeral, the entire extended family gathered at a “funeral home,” a new arrival to the Polish landscape. Afterwards, my grey-haired mother-in-law gently noted that her departed husband “would not be coming with us anymore.” Tears flowed from the eyes of her daughters and herself.
The next day in the morning the coffin was brought to the sitting room of the home for one last visit. The pastor along with our aunt’s son, the priest, my cousin, gave the prayers and blessing of the departed and his family. As the casket left the threshold the pall-bearers touched the coffin three times to the doorstep of the household.
At the church candles, flowers, and wreaths surrounded the casket as it lay in state. Eulogy, homily, Mass, prayers, and songs, celebrated my father-in-law’s 88 years, including the war years in Austria in enforced labor during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Afterwards, dozens of names were read offering Mass intentions for his repose. We followed the body out of the newly renovated church, thanks to many in Chicago’s Polonia and the parishioners who donated funds to their homeland’s parish.
The coffin resting in a funeral car slowly drove to the cemetery as the priests read prayers and sang songs. At the gravesite after prayers and tender good-byes, a bugler played taps gently into the February wind and the warm sun. The surprising 45 degree Fahrenheit weather had melted the last vestiges of the winter snow. Off in the distance amidst a blue azure sky, a jet flew by leaving a plume across the vista. Two birds circled overhead, as if to signal the departed man’s pleasure of the area honoring his memory.
Again tears flowed as the coffin was laid to rest and entombed. The solo bugler continued to play solemn, somber melodies in the background. At the end a mountain of flowers covered the tomb. May he rest in peace, Leon Szkotak, 1925-2014, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, husband, only son, citizen, patriot, Holocaust survivor, parishioner, bookkeeper, rancher, neighbor, and friend.
Robert John Zagar PhD MPH, Agata Karolina Szkotak Zagar MBA