Folk-Lore/Volume 30/Customs connected with Death and Burial among the Roumanians

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731205Folk-Lore, Volume XXX (1919) — Customs connected with Death and Burial among the RoumaniansAgnes Murgoci


(Read before the Society, April 16th. 1919.)

The following account of customs connected with death and burial among the Roumanians is derived from three sources :

1. My own observations during eleven years’ residence both in town and country in Roumania—I have come in contact with at least the most ordinary customs.

2. My husband’s observations during a life-time of travel in all the countries inhabited by Roumanians, including Bessarabia, where he was doing geological work in 1917 and 1918.

3. T. Stratilesco’s book, From Carpathian to Pindus, to which I shall refer as “S.” In this is found a description of many customs as well known to us as to all Roumanians, and some which neither my husband nor myself has seen.

The subject is of special interest at present because of the great number of deaths during the war, and the inability of relations to perform the customary rites. This is to the peasant one of the greatest tragedies of the war.

The attitude of the Roumanian peasant towards death is not one of great fear; he talks quite calmly of “when I shut my eyes,” and is even inclined to welcome the rest after his long toil. Care is taken that the proper arrangements for a fitting death are made, but the state of mind at death is not supposed to have any influence on the eternal future. There is a great deal of fatalism in the attitude both towards death and any other misfortune. It comes in an evil hour, “ceasul rău,” or it happened, “S’a întâmplat.” Death, however does not always come unexpectedly. It may be foretold by the howling of dogs near the verandah, by the hooting of owls in the chimney, by a falling star, even by the falling of a lamp or the spilling of the oil (S. page 289).

The attitude of the Roumanian middle class towards death is often one of abject terror. Descended from peasants at most a generation or two back, the middle class represents the extreme reaction against the physical hardness of peasant life, and its members consider that effort, exertion and contact with the elemental facts of life are to be avoided whenever possible.

In sickness the patient, to whatever class he may belong, thinks that death may not be far off. The conception even of sickness is primitive. If a person is able to go about and do any work, he is well; if he is confined to bed, even with the most trivial complaint, he is ill and in danger of death. Accordingly, even when a patient’s life is in real danger, doctors will not in general tell him the truth for fear of further alarming him. I know of tubercular patients who were given no chance of recovery because they were not warned of the seriousness of their condition. In Bucharest, Kalinderu, a very rich man, administrator of the Royal Domains, died without a will, because his doctor would not tell him that his life was in danger. He had meant to leave a museum to the nation and legacies for public objects; but in the absence of a will, his nephew inherited everything, though it was eventually arranged that the nation should have the museum.

The peasant when ill does not send for a doctor, but for a “baba,” an old woman who tries to cure him by charms and incantations. The belief in the power of the “baba” to cause and cure all sorts of misfortunes, quarrels and curses is universal among the Roumanian peasants. Once I scolded my cook’s daughter severely for carelessness in looking after my baby. The next day the cook and her daughter took the morning off to go to a “baba” to get, what I suppose they called the curse, removed. If my cook did not keep the flue clean and soot fell down, or if she quarrelled with the housemaid, it was never her fault—it had happened because some one had bewitched her.

If the “baba” fails to cure the sick person, he may call in a doctor, probably too late to be of any service. What the peasant believes in more than the doctor is the “popa,” or priest, and the sacrament. Owing to his faith, confession and the sacrament often have considerable effect in improving his condition. In the case of nervous girls, I have known the sacrament to cause a most marked improvement in health.

When a sick man has confessed and received the sacrament he is “grijit,” taken care of, provided for. If he now dies, he dies in his religion. Not to die in his religion would be a terrible thing; a customary oath and one of the most binding is, “Să nu mor în legea mea,” “May I not die in my religion” (S. page 290).

After the sacrament comes the “adiată,” or testament. This, in the case of illiterate peasants, is made by word of mouth in the presence of the whole family, also sometimes of a lawyer, as witnesses. “A lăsa cu limbă de moarte,” “To leave with the tongue of a dead man,” is the expression used, and the wishes of the dead are always respected.

A most important thing is to ensure that the sick man should not die without a candle in his hand. This candle, like all candles used for ceremonial purposes, must be made of bees-wax. Even if the sick man struggles and changes his position, the candle must be kept in his hand. “Âi ţine lumânarea,” “to hold the candle,” means that the person is on the point of dying (S. page 290.)

Once when staying in a village in the Carpathians, I was awakened by shrieks in the middle of the night, a woman was rushing round saying that her Ion, her husband, was dying, and could any one give her a candle. At first I thought the candle was for some remedy such as cupping, but I soon found that her agony was not because she could not relieve her husband’s pain, but because he might pass away without a candle. My cook found a candle for her, but the man did not die.

In hospital wards during the war, they had to be content with one candle of any sort for many dying.

If a man suffers much a priest is called in to read prayers for him (molifte). If this does not ease him, his friends shift his position, putting him facing east. If he has done a wrong, the person wronged is sought, so that forgiveness may be obtained (S. page 291).

When the man is dead, a window is opened or a pane is broken so that the soul may fly out (S. page 291). Any mirrors which may be in the house are covered up. The eyes of the dead are closed by the most loved child. The priest is notified and the church bells are tolled, so that people may know that some one is dead.

In certain localities, the men related to the deceased show their sorrow by going about bare-headed even when going as far as the market-place. The women let down their hair, and begin lamenting the dead aloud. Words are said with a musical intonation, the words often constituting complete elegies of praise and regret for the dead.

In Macedonia, there are professionals who lament the dead, for pay; in Roumania amateurs only are found, who lament “pour l’amour de l’art.”

The dead man is now washed, sometimes for the second time only, the first being at his birth.

The water in which he was washed is poured out at the foot of a tree, and covered with the “kazan,” the vessel in which it was heated, for it would be a profanation to walk over it (S. page 291).

The face is shaven and the nails are cut. It is said that in some places the parings are stuck into a ball of wax and kept as a keepsake (S. page 292). The body is dressed in new clothes, and the hands are folded on the breast ; a long, thin, soft bees-wax candle is taken, bent in and out to take the form of a cross and put into the hands of the corpse. In the centre of the cross a silver coin is placed, usually an old coin no longer in use. The ring is left on the finger of married people, and an unmarried girl would be dressed like a bride and have a ring placed on her finger (S. page 292).

The measure of the body is taken for a coifin either by means of a long reed or by a bit of string, care being taken not to measure off too great a length, as otherwise some one else would die. The reed is put into the coffin, the string plastered up over the door (S. page 292).

When the body is put into the coffin, the feet are tied together; they are untied when the coffin is put into the grave. The body, with the exception of the head, is covered by a white veil or shroud, the “guilgiŭ” or “pânza.” The Roumanians have proverbs equivalent to our “To go on till the last gasp.” “Pâna’n pânzele albe,” “Until the white veil,” or “Pâna’n guilgiŭ,” “Until the shroud.”

An eikon is usually placed on top of the shroud. Sometimes things used in ordinary life are also put into the coffin. Thus a shepherd might be buried with his crook and whistle. In the coffin of the mother of a family, dolls may be put to represent the children she has had (S. page 293).

In most parts of the old kingdom of Roumania, the corpse is kept in the house for three days, but in Bessarabia it is the priest who decides when the burial is to take place, and he may fix it even for the day after the death.

In towns, for example Bucharest, long black flags are hung out at the gate posts to show that there is someone dead in the house. Black tablets with the name of the dead person, in silver letters, are also placed outside, and it is an act of respect for anyone to go in and visit the dead. It is noticeable that one does not say “Good day,” “Buna ziua,” in the house of death; it is the only instance of which I know when this greeting is omitted.

There is among Roumanians a great deal of enjoyment of the death rites even of strangers. My cook used invariably to visit all the dead in the neighbourhood, and would rush to the front of the house and stand for hours to look at the funerals which passed. When we moved to a larger house, it was a great grievance to her that she could no longer see funerals so well as before.

Candles are kept lighted in the room of death and prayers are said. The priest reads the gospels, “stîlpii,” “pillars,” i.e. pillars of religion. The relations keep lamenting as much as possible; and especially at night there is a great gathering of people, called the priveghiŭ or wake. The corpse is watched constantly to see that no animal—as for example a cat—should pass over it, for that would be a great sacrilege. A fire is often lighted in the courtyard, and visitors can sit either inside or outside. All kinds of games are played, and excellent opportunities for flirtations are afforded. There is a book which is always read on these occasions, “Vămile Văzduhului,” “The toll gates of the spirit,” written by St. Vasile (Basil) the Great. This describes how down below is hell and up above is heaven, with twenty-four steps in between. At each step, there is a devil and an angel, and they investigate the man’s record to see whether he ought to go upwards or downwards. Realistic pictures of these toll gates are sometimes seen in peasant cottages.

The relations during this time will have obtained mourning clothes. The customs as to mourning are very severe for the middle class. The women are simply swathed in crape, and the only relief to their black would be the powder and paint on their faces. Sometimes even the men wear black suits, and instead of white collars and cuffs, they wear shiny black ones. The peasants are content with a black band round the arm, and as a sign of grief they do not shave. Some years ago in Bucharest, a boy scout was drowned and was to be buried with full scout honours. His father, a poor old peasant, came up to us for the occasion, and we did our best to make him presentable. We coaxed him into a collar and a black tie, but not even the presence of the Crown Prince at the funeral would induce the father to do anything contrary to the peasant habit of remaining unshaven.

A custom that I have never seen, connected w4th the dead, is described by T. Stratilesco as rare (page 295). Just before the funeral, a black sheep was brought into the yard; “at the rising of the stars the priest was called in; in his presence a hole was dug in the yard; the sheep, with burning wax candles stuck to its horns, was placed beside it, looking westward, and whilst the popa was saying a prayer, the animal was killed, the blood being made to run into that hole, called ‘ară.’ The meat of the sheep was used for the preparation of the funeral dinner; the priest got the head and skin of the animal.” The very common expression, “A da pielea popii,” “To give the skin to the priest,” takes its origin from this custom, and is a way of saying “to die.”

As a rule, after three days the body is taken to the church beside the cemetery, and is carried out of the house as one would expect, feet foremost. Among the Roumanians, as well as in England, to leave the house feet foremost, “cu piciorele inainte,” means to leave it dead.

In Bessarabia, as they start from the house after the first prayers, the popa and the dascal, the popa’s assistant, each receive a colac, a small roll of unfermented bread, and a plate of food is brought that the popa may bless it. In other parts the colaci would be given after the burial.

If the distance to the graveyard is short, the body may be taken on a litter, if longer, on an ox-cart. In some parts of Moldavia and Bessarabia the body is put on a sledge drawn by oxen, even although it is summer time; the reason for the use of the sledge being that the dead man may not be shaken and his long sleep disturbed.

In Bessarabia, the door of the house must be carefully shut after the dead man has left, otherwise some one else might die. Every time the procession stops, and gospels are read or prayers are said, “punţi” are given, that is “colaci” wrapped up in handkerchiefs.

In all Roumanian countries, the dead person is either carried uncovered to church, or holes are made in the coffin, so that he may see and hear what is going on (S. page 293). In Bucharest the corpse would not be exposed till the cemetery is reached. There the old custom is reverted to, and it is somewhat of a shock to the Westerner to see the body in full view, dressed in pretentious clothes, often visiting dresses or even ball dresses.

In villages the mourners go on foot; in towns, as in the West, there may be a long procession of cabs, but as the cross and banner, and several trays with eatables are carried first, the whole procession goes at a slow walk. In towns the priests would come to the cemetery gates in cabs; afterwards they would walk as in the country. They are dressed in their robes, they intone prayers, and they each carry a large lit candle, round which a handkerchief is tied by the corner. In the extreme end of this corner the fee for the burial service is tied up, and the popa and dascal are often caught feeling to see what the coin is, whether in the case of a poor man it is a five-franc piece or a two-franc piece.

Handkerchiefs, in towns black-bordered ones, are given as presents to other mourners, and in Bessarabia the priest is sometimes given a bag when he arrives with the dead man at the church door. Both men and women form part of the funeral procession.

A service is held in the church; in Bessarabia this is sometimes in Russian and sometimes in Roumanian, but usually it is hurried over, for as it is said, “He is dead in any case, and whether we sing or read or weep, he will not come to life again."

In Bessarabia, on arriving at the church, the first duty of the relations of the dead man is to ask the priest for the “cununiţa” and prayers for forgiveness. The “cununiţa” are strips of paper 17 inches × 2 inches, which are placed by the priest on the forehead of the dead man. They have a simple design in yellow round them, and three eikons or holy pictures—the Mother of our Lord, Jesus, and St. John the Baptist—and the words, “Have mercy on us.” The object of placing the papers on the dead man’s head is that he may be mindful of these three great helpers, and that they may take pity on him at the last judgment.

The prayers for forgiveness are read by the priest, and then the paper on which they are printed is placed by him on the breast of the dead man. This paper has a black border round it.

After the service the last farewell is taken of the dead. He is lowered into the grave by cords and also by two long “brîe,” the woven belts worn by peasants. The belts used are then given to the gravediggers (S. page 294). Before the coffin lid is lowered the priest pours down wine and olive oil and sprinkles earth, saying, “Fie-i ţărîna uşoară,” “May the earth be light on him” (S. page 294). Over the grave, gifts may be given for the soul of the dead, sometimes a sheep, more often a hen, usually a black one. The hen is given to the gravediggers, so that God may make the sins of the dead man as light as are the feathers of the hen.

The funeral guests go home, and on reaching the house of the dead man, they wash. This is obligatory; it is of the nature of a ceremonial washing.

At the funeral there are gifts of food for the soul of the dead—colaci, rolls of unfermented bread—and coliva, which is prepared as follows:—Wheat is taken and the husks carefully removed from the grain, which is boiled with sugar until it is soft, but has just not begun to burst. Any remaining water is strained off, and the grain is put on a plate and sprinkled with grated walnut. Coliva both looks and tastes very good—it is not unlike the frumenty prepared in Yorkshire.

The great funeral feast or “praznic” is held after the return from the cemetery. As many people as possible are invited, and tables are spread not only in the house for the priests and chief guests, but also in the courtyard. The feast may even be served in two or three relays. The traditional dishes are “carne cu prune,” stewed beef with prunes, and “pilaf,” stewed rice with meat, but meat with cabbage or potatoes may also be given. Very little wine is drunk, and everyone when drinking begins by spilling some wine and saying, “Fie-i ţărîna uşoară.”

Each guest is given a colac and a candle for the soul of the dead. “A da colac şi lumânare,” “To give colac and candle,” is a common proverb, meaning to give up something (S. page 296).

Other rolls of traditional form are taken to the cemetery; the priest goes to fetch them, takes some himself and gives the rest to poor people and children. As the priest gets the lion’s share of all the eatables prepared in honour of the dead, he is sure to be well fed whoever else may go hungry. The expression, “burtă de popă,” “The priest’s stomach,” is proverbial. Even the pigs and hens of the popa have obvious stomachs, for the pigs are fattened on colaci and the hens on coliva.

After the burial a candle is still kept burning, incense burnt, and bread and water placed where the dead man breathed his last, for the soul is supposed to linger round the place of death for three days. T. Stratilcsco says that after the three days the soul is supposed to find its abode above the door lintel, and accordingly a piece of linen is put for it to rest on (S. page 296).

After the first great death feast, the relations still remain under the obligation to make many others. Thus coliva is prepared and given away as pomana (feast in honour of the dead) on the 3rd, 9th, 20th and 40th day after death. On the first anniversary of the death, there is a religious service (parastas) and a dinner. The guests at the dinner are usually in excellent spirits, the heirs have divided up the inheritance among themselves, and the widow, if young, may even have married again.

A small monument (panaghia) is erected on the grave—the erection of monuments, however, is less a habit in Roumania than in England. The most characteristic monuments are the Troiţele, crosses of wood with numbers of little crosses introduced at the sides, erected where some one has met with a violent death.

Dinners on the anniversary of the death are given for seven years in succession.

These “pomeni,” or death feasts, have so entered into the habits of the Roumanians that the term “pomana” is now used for any kind of giving, the idea being that anything given away benefits the soul of some relation. Even the little gypsy beggars in the street say, “Faceţi pomana,” “Make a death feast.”

In Moldavia and the neighbouring districts it is the custom to dig up the dead after seven years, and on this occasion the last death feast is given in their honour. The bones are washed with wine, put in a smaller coffin and reburied (S. page 296). In towns the exhumation of the dead before the full seven years has passed is not legal, but in the country they are often disinterred after three or four years. The priests in Bessarabia have been in their element for the last few years; they are overburdened with work and pay, for, not only have they an unusually large number of deaths to deal with, but they are now beginning to be occupied in digging up those who died in the earlier stages of the war.

In Wallachia it is not customary to exhume the dead, but permission to do so is given in special instances. Thus a husband had died and was buried in Bucharest, while his wife had died and was buried in Braila. Seven years after his death, his son had him disinterred and his remains buried in the same grave with those of his wife in Braila.

In the case of the dead who are exhumed after three or four years only, it is found that those buried in calcareous soil or in water-bearing strata still preserve some semblance of life. The peasant understands nothing of natural causes; to him a corpse, in which putrefaction is not complete, is a vampire or strigoï. These vampires are supposed to have their holiday on November 30th, Hallowe’en. They rise from their tombs and walk about in their old haunts with their coffins on their heads. Garlic or the scent of incense tends to keep them away. It is supposed that some living people are also vampires, and go on Hallowe’en to join their brothers; but if found out they die. If a dead person is discovered to be a vampire, a stake must be thrust through his heart, after which he will not rise again (S. page 189).

Beside the death feasts for individual dead there is one great annual feast in honour of the dead in general—Sămbăta Morţilor (the Saturday of the Dead), the sixth Saturday after Easter, the eve of Trinity. On this day every one gives away coliva, together with the dishes containing it, and vessels containing wine and water. The coliva is eaten, and the vessels are used in honour of the dead person mentioned with the gift (S. page 184). Visits are paid, more particularly by women, to the graves of their dead.

Saints are the only exception to the rule that “pomeni” cease after seven years; for there are yearly feasts, or Hramuri, in honour of any patron saint of a church or monastery. The people go to the cemetery with coliva, colaci, and covrigi (rings of bread). There is a church service, and the priest reads the “Pomelnicul morţilor,” that is the prayer which begins “Pomeneste, domni in impărăţia ta,” “Receive, oh Lord, into thy kingdom.” After other prayers and blessings, the people sit down at tables set out near the church, and feast.

Water plays an important part in connection with “pomeni” and other customs connected with death. Thus, water is always given freely, “de pomană,” though the tip, or “bacşis,” habit otherwise flourishes.

A curious custom observed by my husband at Runcic, a village with a Vauclusian spring, is called “A duce isvorul morţilor” (to bring the spring to the dead). A woman, the sister, mother or wife of the dead goes to the spring and pours out several spoonfuls of milk on a napkin, saying, “May God receive into his kingdom my ——— !” (naming the relationship and the name). She puts the napkin into a half pumpkin rind which has been hollowed out; next she puts into it two candles arranged in the form of a cross with all four ends lit. Then she launches the pumpkin into the spring and lets it be carried down by the current. Owing to the character of the spring, the pumpkins could be carried away in safety without dashing into anything. Afterwards she comes back, and brings seven pails of water, one after the other to her neighbours, as “apă de pomană,” an offering of water for the dead.

Running water is supposed somehow to be able to carry objects to another world. Thus (1):—On the Monday after Easter Monday, women put the red egg-shells from Easter eggs into running water, so that they may be carried to the Blajini, good men living in some other world and ignorant of what passes in this. By means of the egg-shells, these men will see that Easter has come, and they too will rejoice (S. page 180).

(2) There is also the well-known story of the gypsy and his cap. A gypsy was walking over a bridge when a gust of wind carried his “caciula” (fur cap) into the water. He ran down the stream and tried to fish it out, but found this was impossible, so he said, “After all, I did want to make a pomana for my father,” consoling himself with the idea that somehow the stream would bring the cap to his dead father.

(3) There is the well-known rain charm Calojan, quoted by T. Stratilesco, p. 183. When there is prolonged drought in spring time, women take yellow clay and make a model of a man that they call Calojan. They also make a coffin, put him in this, cry over him, burn incense, and in short carry out fairly accurately the “griji” for the dead. Then they bury him near the well, singing:—

Dute’n cer şi cere
Să deschidă porţile
Să sloboadă ploile
Să curgă ca gârlele
Nopţile şi zilile
Ca să creasă gârnele   
Calojan, oh Calojan,
Go to heaven and beg
That the gates may be opened,
That the rains may be set free,
That they may run like torrents
Day and night,
So that the wheat may grow.

After three days Calojan is dug up and thrown into the river to provoke rain. On the day on which he is dug up men do not work after midday, but spend the afternoon drinking and dancing.

(4) Another rain charm is to dig up the corpse of some one struck by lightning, and to throw it into running water (S. page 183).