Romanian death traditions and rituals: pomana and Romani musicians

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Romanian death traditions: a photo of the cheerful cemetery of Sapinta in Romania. A close up photo of a grave, complete with colorful painted wooden grave markers with a painting of a farmer and a sheep, a key part of Romanian death rituals.

Romanian death traditions: memories of my grandfathers burial

Romanian death traditions and rituals are based on centuries of traditions: lautari Romani music, pomana, and throwing a handful of dirt on the coffin. Are these rituals for the dead or for us?

The road was dusty and hot, and we were walking much too slowly. Granted, following a horse-drawn carriage loaded with a coffin never promised to be anything other than long and hot and slow, but even so, I felt restless as I took small steps behind the 12-piece band playing funeral music.

I was only 7, and following the funeral procession for my grandfather. I was old enough to participate but too young to truly be affected by the loss, so I had a front-row seat to what was, for me, a truly unique show.

I’d like to make it clear that it’s not my intention to demean anyone’s loss. The death of a loved one and the rituals that follow it are harrowing experiences not be taken lightly. In this particular case, however, my age and my curiosity about the world made it more educational than traumatic. Romanian death traditions are complex and fascinating, though sadly most of them are now forgotten.

This whole event started with a three-day wake at our house. What followed was a general assembly in our courtyard, where all of our relatives got together, had one last shot of booze and bite of food, and prepared for the hour-long journey to the cemetery.

Imagine being dressed in black head to toe in the middle of the afternoon in August. We had to. If anyone showed up at the funeral wearing any other color it would have been offensive. Especially red! Red was the fashion equivalent of giving the deceased the middle finger. I’m so attached to this tradition that even though I live in Italy now, where they don’t color-code funerals at all, I just can’t bring myself to show up in anything other than black.

I remember that my clothes were itchy as well, and smelled vaguely of petrol. In the period right after the fall of communism in Romania, there was this big boom of cheap, Chinese imported clothing. 

My mother was immediately converted to capitalism, and she was a big fan of buying six of everything – just because it was cheap and available. This was such a huge trend that even now, the world “chinesery” is used in Romanian to mean “cheaply made.”

Romanian death traditions: the lautari musical funeral procession

The horses leading us were wearing black tack, and black blinders, and black tassels. The coffin was draped with flowers, and following close behind it was the band. There were 12 musicians with instruments ranging from violins and violas to accordions and various brass pieces similar to the saxophone and tuba. Most of them had jaunty hats and dapper mustaches and smiles on their faces. Theirs was a very old profession, dating back to Gipsy “lautari” groups, and even further back to Turkish and Byzantine music.

Imagine Gipsy caravans and the music they would play when performing magic shows, or bear training tricks, and you’d be very close to what I heard on that day. The tunes they played were slower and sadder perhaps, but extremely complex. They would be a challenge for most modern musicians, and we all knew it, so we held the band in very high regard.

One of the tuba players was in charge of the whole group, and as he signaled a pause in the music, he turned to the other saxophone players with a rogue smile. 

He said, “If any of you fellows need a break, you can just stick your sax in that horse’s rear end, he can probably do a better job blowing out his arse than any of you are managing with your mouths!”

They all laughed heartily and traded a few friendly curses between them. I was right behind them, and I had to stifle a giggle since I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to laugh. But in my mind, I thought “Ok, people are laughing, so everything is all right. There’s nothing to be worried about.” That was enough for me to forget whatever concerns I might have had about what would come next.

The Romanian word Lăutar denotes a class of traditional musicians. Most often, and by tradition, lăutari are members of a professional clan of Romani musicians (Gypsies), also called țigani lăutari. The term is derived from lăută the name of a string instrument. Lăutari usually performs in bands, called taraf. They are a hallmark of Romanian death traditions and rituals.

It’s better this way – childhood questions about death

When we arrived at the graveyard, the musicians took their places under the shade of some nearby trees to smoke and relax while the priest did his part of the show. I can’t tell you much of what he said since it was mostly in Latin, and I frankly I just wasn’t that interested. Instead, I wandered here and there between the various groups of relatives, looking up at them and listening to their gossip. I avoided the ones that were listening to the priest or crying in their handkerchief, because I didn’t want to bother them, and instead headed for a group of aunties further back that seemed to be having an important meeting.

“You’re very lucky, young lady,” One of them said to me as soon as I arrived. “You don’t know what it was like ten years ago. You’re so spoiled now. Your sister, she’s older, and she knows. You should ask her about what it was like in school, learning all about Ceausescu, and seeing him on TV all of the time.”

I had absolutely no intention of asking her any such thing.

“Did you like your grandfather? May he rest in peace.” Someone abruptly changed the topic.

I shrugged a little bit, and in my slow and doubtful way said: “I don’t know.” It’s not that I didn’t like him, I just thought that it was an idiotic question, and therefore it must be a trick question.

Romania. The cheerful cemetery of Sapinta, complete with colorful painted wooden grave markers and well maintained flower beds, a key part of Romanian death rituals
"God rest his soul. Who knows what's coming." Credit: ​​©Sebastian / Adobe Stock

They all laughed, and I didn’t really know why. An aunt with a white mustache and a headscarf nodded knowingly. “Of course the little ones never get along with the old ones. Besides, for the last two years, it’s been very hard on everyone.”

“Very hard.” They all agreed.

“He was so ill and unhappy, and everyone else was unhappy too. His poor sister, caring for him like that. I tell you, it’s better this way. God rest his soul.”

“It’s better this way.” They all sang out in a chorus.“

And not a moment too soon.” Another aunt chimed in. She reached in her pocket to find a mint candy for me, then patted me on the head and returned her hands to her broad hips. They were talking above my head fully expecting that I wouldn’t understand a thing, but I was looking up at them, wide-eyed and curious.

“Others go on like that for many years” she went on. “It’s terrible. And now that everything is so uncertain, even our pensions!”

They made clucking sounds of disapproval. 

The mustachioed aunt put a hand to the top of her black dress, pulled it away from her chest and spat in her breast – an ancient gesture to ward of evil spirits and bad luck. Apparently, the pension topic was a hot one.

“It is definitely for the better he went now rather than later, God rest his soul. Who knows what’s coming.”

“Definitely better” The chorus sang.

I immediately took that conclusion to heart. Surely, if my wise aunts who knew all about making cookies and planting tomatoes said it was better, then it must be the absolute truth! 

I smiled brightly, happy to have learned something so clear and definitive, and went off in search of someone else to share the great news with. It didn’t take me long to find them.

Another group of ladies, all wearing black headscarves summoned me as I passed nearby. “Come here, girl. Do you remember who I am?”

“No.” I said, sincerely. I never had much memory for faces, and haven’t seen most of these people since I was a baby.

“Poor thing, of course not, I don’t mind. You must be so upset. Are you upset about your Grandfather?”

Finally, a question I knew the answer to!“No. It’s better he died.”

I expected to be praised for how clever and grown-up I was. I definitely didn’t expect the litany of gasps that followed. Everyone in the group made no less than three signs of the Holy Cross, and then promptly pulled on the front of their dressed and spat three times in their breasts. Three times! Not even their pensions summoned that much waterworks.

Is it better that he died?

I scurried away, worried that their poor eyesight might cause them to miss and shower me in old lady spittle. Just in time, too, because the priest was finishing up his act and the casket was getting lowered into the ground. Little groups of people were already veering off to head back for the house where there would be shade, cool drinks, and of course, food and booze.

My grandmother was stationed by the gate with her little packets of treats to give to the participants. I went close to her to wait for instructions. I was hoping nobody would tell her that I said it was better Grandpa was dead because by now I was seriously starting to doubt the accuracy of that statement. Maybe I said it wrong? I made a plan to ask her later in private.

Though I got some long hard looks from the offended aunts as they passed, nobody said a word. When we were finally back at the house, I cornered my grandmother in the kitchen alone and asked her why the ladies at the graveyard had said that it was better Grandpa was dead. I think she was quite shaken by my question, and it took her a while to answer, though she usually has quick wits and quick quips for any situation.

“Which ladies said that?” she asked after a moment.

“I don’t know.” My standard reply. I wasn’t about to get anyone in any trouble!

“People say stupid things, Alex. Don’t listen to them. Silence is golden, and talk is free.”

Now that was definitely a bit of advice I could get behind!

I must have slept through most of the rest of the festivities because I don’t remember much. However, as per tradition, every year for the next three years on the anniversary of my Grandfather’s death, my Grandma would organize that part of the event again. It was called the “pomana,” loosely translated as “the giving.”

Romanian death traditions: pomana keeps his spirit at bay

The pomana was an occasion to get together, make food and give it out to anyone who wanted to participate, as well as any poor people at the church or graveyard. You know, just in case Grandpa could still use a bit of help building up his good name wherever he was. The older I got, the more amused I was that we were essentially organizing a festival every year, complete with music and food and cheerful guests, to somehow help out Grandpa. But in all honesty, I never stopped enjoying it.

The mourners, the musicians, the cakes, and the gossip weren’t for the dead, of course. On some level, even the most superstitious of grandmothers know that. They were for us. It took me a very long time to reach that conclusion, but it’s absolutely true. The more complex and involved the rituals, the more we feel like we’re doing something proactive. Like we have some sort of control over what is, in the end, a completely uncontrollable situation. Like we’re helping.

To this day, being able to do something about a bad situation is still my favorite form of therapy. As long as I can get my hands dirty, take care of things, organize things, and generally do things, I know I’m going to be ok. Taking that option away from me is what really throws me for a loop.

And in case anyone out there is wondering, no, my Grandfather did not come back to haunt us as a vampire. My grandmother went to great lengths to make absolutely sure that would never happen. And it worked.

As for me? I grew up to be a fully functional, mostly integrated member of society. With a fascination for gruesome stories, sad music, and Romanian folklore, sure, but who can blame me? You would be too if you’d heard the stories I’ve heard. I’d love to tell you about them. Someday.

Article by
Alex Pana

An Expat from Romania living in Italy, Alex shares her life with her musician husband, crazy dog, and her mad passion for writing stories.


Romanian death traditions are unique and varied: steeped in tradition | Photo ©Sebastian / Adobe Stock