FOLK CUSTOMS OF THE CARPATHO-RUSYNS:
Originally published and copyright 1986 1986 Vol IX, #3. Unauthorized duplication or use is prohibited and in violation of international copyright law.
Young girls praying at a grave in Transcarpathia in the earlier part of this century.
One of the first things to be noticed by man in the earliest stages of historical development was the regularity and inevitability of two things in life: birth and death. Having found that all living beings have their beginning and end, man naturally accepted his own death as an unalterable law of nature. At the same time, however, death, like all other natural phenomena, appeared to primitive man as something supernatural and mysterious. In order to "humanize" the abstract notion of death, early man tried to form in his mind a concrete image of death.
In the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland, death was most frequently personified in a powerful old woman armed with a scythe (Smertka - the "She-Death"). It was also represented by an old man, a skeleton reaper, and even by animals (a horse, a dog, or a cat). At the time of mass epidemics, once frequent in Subcarpathian Rus', minds feverish with the illness and easily moved by mass hysteria were liable to believe that death was a concrete being with which one could communicate. At first the people tried to placate death with prayers and offerings, such as parts of the clothing from each inhabitant of the village that were put into the graves of those stricken by the plague. When this conciliatory approach failed to produce the desired results, methods believed more effective were used: an experienced exorcist was summoned to wield his magic power and drive death into a grave and seal her there. Even today we can hear in many Rusyn villages legends about people's meetings with death, or with the living form of a dead man.
One of the most widespread superstitions in the past was the belief that a dead man or woman could either help or harm the survivors. This harm was feared especially in cases when the deceased did not receive due honors following his or her demise. This is where the traditional burial rites came in. In the past, when aged Rusyns felt that their "last hour" was approaching, they summoned to their death-bed all their relatives, divided their possessions among them, and said their last good-bye. Sometimes, especially in the recent past, the village magistrate or a notary was summoned in order to put together the dying person's last will. On this occasion each of the relatives kissed the dying family member and said a few parting words. Crying on the part of the relatives in such situations was not usual, for it was desired that the dying person should spend the last hours of his or her life in as relaxed an atmosphere as possible.
A customary guest of the expired person was also the priest who listened to the confession and administered the sacrament of holy unction. Sometimes the dying person expressed wishes as to how he or she should be dressed for the burial and what particular form the burial should take. When all these demands were met, the dying person would usually calmly expire, as if death were scheduled. This obviously had as much to do with the general mentality of village life as with auto-suggestion.
Dying was, of course, not always so serene. When it appeared "too protracted," and when the dying person was believed to suffer more and especially longer than was his or her due, the intervention of "unclean spirits' was suspected. In such cases, the dying person was sprinkled with holy water and "magic" plants were used for incense. A liturgical candle was put into the dying person's hands, and among other things, holes were bored into a wall so that the soul could "fly away." As many religious icons show, the soul was imagined in the form of light or dark vapor. Sometimes, to "speed up" the process of dying, the person in question was moved to the middle of the room.
When the man or woman died, his or her eyes and mouth were closed. Sometimes to prevent their re-opening, the eyelids were weighted down with coins, and the lower jawbone fixed with a kerchief. This, at last, was the time when the pent-up grief could be openly released. The room was filled with the wailing (holosynja) of the women and with the recitals of fixed formulae which highlighted the good deeds of the dead and the dead's good relationships with his or her family. When a mother died in childbirth (a frequent occurrence in the past), a new-born child was also left with the mother to die because without a mother it had no chance to survive.
In the house, all the doors, cupboards, and vessels were opened. The head of the household or another member of the family went bareheaded to break the sad news to the coroner, the priest, and the bell-ringer. The tolling of his smallest bell (the funeral bell) announced to all the villagers that one from their midst had departed. In some villages the smallest bell only announced the death of a child. When an adult man died, his passing was announced with the tolling of the largest bell, while the death of a woman was announced by a medium-sized bell. The tolling, however, took place only when the person in question died in the course of the day. When he or she died after sunset, their demise was announced by the bell-ringer the following morning.
In the meantime, at home, the dead person was washed and dressed in his best clothes (these had to include the man's wedding shirt), was laid out on a bench, and was covered with white linen. A dead young man or girl was dressed in wedding costume, while a child was not laid out on a bench but on a table, the legs pointing toward the door. The water, soap, comb, pot, and other objects that come into contact with the dead person were carried off to an inaccessible place in order to prevent their presumed negative influence on the cattle and the crops.
As a sign of grief, any mirrors in the house were covered with a piece of cloth. Candles brought to the house from the church were lit at the side of the dead person (their number ranging from 2 to 8, depending on the wealth of the deceased), and the joiner constructed a casket. As recently as the first half of the nineteenth century, the Carpatho-Rusyns buried their dead without a coffin, using instead a simple wooden plank. Later, an unadorned rectangular coffin (hladka truna) closed with a lid began to be used. Only in the twentieth century did they start to use the sexagonal casket (horbata truna), consisting of two identical parts. The coffin was usually made in the courtyard, in the anteroom, or even in the very room where the deceased person was laid out. When the coffin was finished, its bottom was bedded with wood-shavings, and a fresh piece of turf was put at the place where the dead person's head was to be laid. The body was then placed in the casket, which remained open until the burial. The joiners were paid no money. Their only reward was their meals and several glasses of brandy (palenka). All those who helped wash and dress the deceased person were rewarded likewise.
The room with the dead was visited by relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances. Each of them knelt at the side of the deceased to say a prayer, and then briefly offer his or her condolences. The women from among the close relatives expressed their grief by ritual wailing.
Towards evening the local church cantor (djak) came to read from the psalter. The intervals between psalms were filled with narratives from the life of the deceased and with legends or fairy tales. These tales often acquired a cheerful, even jocular tone. This was due to the belief that the deceased perceived everything that was going on around him or her for as long as the grave was not "sealed." Therefore, the dead person's relatives and friends tried to re-create the atmosphere to which he or she was accustomed during his or her lifetime. In no case was the deceased allowed to stay in the room alone. The number of people who kept vigil over the deceased was an index of the honor bestowed on him or her. The belief in the continued life of the soul of the deceased found its reflection also in the custom of leaving a vessel with water and a towel on the windowsill so that the soul could "wash itself clean of sins" (umyty z hrichiv) and as well as leaving a bottle of brandy for the "refreshment" of the dead person's soul.
An interesting phenomenon was the type of folk games with which young people of both sexes passed the time of their vigil. These games, widespread throughout the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland, most especially among the Lemkos and the Bojkos, numbered into the hundreds. The most widespread of them were "The Wooden Spades," "The Pear." "The Rooster." "The Goose," "The Mill," "God and the Devil." "The Goat." and "The Magpie." Some of them were played also on other occasions, but most were connected with night vigils at the side of the dead person. The contents of these games had little to do with the sad atmosphere of the funeral. On the contrary, they were marked by youthful mirth, high spirits, and eroticism.
Sometimes the young people involved the deceased person in the games. For instance, the boys used various tricks to move the deceased's limbs, creating fear and panic among the girls, or they tickled the dead under his or her nose with a straw. The relatives and other senior people present not only did not object to such merrymaking, but even encouraged it by offering brandy to the revelers, believing that this would have a beneficial influence on the crops and on the life of the family of the deceased. The funeral games were sharply condemned as pagan by the church as early as the Middle Ages, but apparently with little effect. The games remained a part of the funeral customs virtually until the middle of the twentieth century. This author has witnessed the playing of such games near the town of Snina in the Presov Region as recently as the beginning of the 1960s.
The customs observed on the first night of the vigil were basically the same as on the second night. The burial took place on the third day after the death. Almost all the villagers took part in the ceremony. After the priest's arrival at the house, along with the djak and their party carrying the cross and the church banners, the excitement reached its culmination with the nailing of the lid onto the casket. Prior to this, the closest relatives parted with the deceased for the last time by kissing the face, hands, and knees. Each of them threw into the casket several coins so that the deceased could pay his or her "toll" to the other world. The relatives also put into the casket the favorite things of the dead: a pipe, tobacco, prayer book, sometimes even a bottle of brandy. The casket was always taken out of the house with the legs of the dead first ("so that the dead would never return"), and it was made to touch the threshold of the house three times.
In the courtyard, the casket was laid on the bier and the burial proceeded. The church ceremony was punctuated by the wailing of women. Another popular Rusyn folk custom was the singing of "funeral parting songs." Their theme was mostly the futility of earthly existence and the relationship of the dead to his or her survivors. These songs, most of which were recorded in hand-written songbooks from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, were sung by the djak. He received a special reward for his singing, the amount of which depended on the emotional impression left on those present.
The bier was carried to the cemetery by four to six neighbors, or was transported (even in summer) on a sleigh drawn by oxen. This ancient form of burial procession, known at least from the time of Kievan Rus', was preserved the longest among the Carpatho-Rusyns. A live rooster and a loaf of bread bound in yarn were carried at the head of the procession. Both were donated after the funeral to the priest or to the sexton. The burial procession for a young man or girl was an almost exact copy of the wedding procession. It was headed by the starosta (one of the chief organizers of the wedding) holding the wedding banner. He was accompanied by the best man and bridesmaids carrying the casket decorated with the wedding wreath. The casket of a young boy or girl was always carried by young people of the opposite sex.
After the coffin was lowered into the grave, each of the participants in the burial ceremony threw a handful of soil onto the casket. After the grave was filled, a wooden cross was erected at its head. It often bore no name; however, a coin of the latest year of issue was often affixed to it. This helped to identify the grave and the buried person. Normally the Rusyns did not take any special care of the graves of their relatives, and so it sometimes happened that even the children did not know where their parents were buried. Monuments on the graves have come to be generally widespread only since the mid-twentieth century. After the burial ended, it was customary to invite the participants to a funeral feast (pomana, kar). The usual meal was bread and bryndza (a kind of sheep cheese). Meat was served only as an exception. In far eastern Subcarpathian Rus', the guests of the funeral feast were served a special dish called kolyvo (a mixture of honey and boiled wheat).
The closest kin (parents, children, and siblings) mourned for the dead relative for a year. The mourning could be, but did not have to be, expressed by wearing black clothes. However, the social norm required that in the course of the year the closest relatives of the deceased should not take part in any sort of public entertainment, including weddings. Custom also forbade them to whitewash the walls of the room in which the person died ("in case the soul of the deceased is resting in a crack in the plaster"). The belief in the possible return of the dead was so widespread in the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland that tales on this theme have been retained in all the villages. According to the stories, the late relative most often returned to pick up his or her favorite things, such as a pipe, tobacco, or a musical instrument. These things were usually laid upon the grave in order to prevent any further return of the dead.
A frequent theme of folk stories was also the postmortal life and "deeds" of evil male (vampir, dvodusnyk) or female (bosorkanja -- a witch) magic beings. These were believed to go on, causing harm to people even after their death. They could cause, for instance, hail, drought, or the death of cattle. In order to prevent any further misdeeds of the evil spirits, the most superstitious among the villagers would dig out the dead bodies believed to be the holders of the evil spirits from their graves, cut off their heads, putting them between their legs, or pierce the hearts of the dead. Court archives from the past contain many documents testifying to such cases of vandalism motivated by superstition.
At present, the original burial customs are largely extinct. New burial customs include the mailing of funeral invitations, the bringing of store-bought funeral wreaths to the graves, and expressing condolences at the cemetery by a kiss and a handshake. The present-day funeral feasts have also changed considerably. They are invariably very opulent, and they usually take place in the village "house of culture" or restaurant. The participants at the funeral feast (sometimes as many as 200 people) include all the relatives, neighbors, and almost everybody who in some way was helpful at the burial. The guests are served substantial lunches and alcohol. As in the past, the funeral feast usually ends with the church memorial song "Vicnaja pamjat", (Eternal Memory).
Recent times have witnessed a growing number of secular burials, that is, burials without any church ceremonies. These are organized by the local village councils (soviets) in Soviet Transcarpathia or by their equivalent in Czechoslovakia, the "national committees." However, even the secular funerals retain some of the elements of the traditional folk funeral.
Mykola Musynka - Presov
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