How and why we mourn death: lessons from my grandfather’s Romanian funeral

by Alex Pana

Romanian funeral traditions. A Romanian funeral. two winding rows of lit white candles go from foreground to background. The candles are the only things visible as they are completely surrounded by darkness.
Caption:

Even though we will all die, the way we mourn (or don't) differs across cultures and families.

Credit:

@blickpixel / Adobe Stock

The coffin lid made a hollow sound as the old woman smacked her palms down on it suddenly. She was dressed in black, head to toe, and the lace of her gown waved as she shouted: “Why did you leave us?” She wept and wailed, and we all shook with her crying. Decades later the reverberation of the coffin, this funeral, and Romanian funeral traditions still echo in my mind.

This scene isn’t an excerpt from my upcoming horror book, as much as I would love for that to be the case. This is a memory from my childhood of Romanian funeral traditions, as real today as if it was yesterday. I was seven years old at the time and taking part in the burial rites for my grandfather.

Who was the woman, you ask? I didn’t know her, none of my family did.

She was a professional mourner. And she’d never met my grandfather.

She’s only one of the many oddities about a traditional burial in my grandmother’s village. It was called “Bara,” and it was a small, hilltop community of about 200 souls. I vividly remember the muddy roads that sloped downwards from our house to the church. I can still see the stone well on top of the hill overlooking the town. My grandmother always warned me that an old man with a hook lived inside the well and that if you stared into the well for too long he would pull you in.

That wasn’t the only strange or unsettling part of my village. Some of what I will tell you it may even be considered gruesome and disrespectful by today’s standards. But what I experienced wasn’t judged by modern, adult standards. It was judged through the curious eyes of a 7-year old girl in a village community in rural Romania. And however morbid you may find my story, I can promise you one thing: the person I became is better off for it.

A Romanian funeral. An old man wearing a fur hat stands in the street staring into the distance. The sepia photo focuses on the man, with people in the background appearing blurry.

I don’t remember much about my grandfather. That’s not unusual for me, most of my life before the age of 13 is a hazy blur. I don’t remember when he died or why or how I found out. I must have just heard about it in the grownups conversations.

We weren’t the “sitting down and explaining things to the child” type of family. I don’t even know exactly how his body ended up on our living room table, or who put him there. I just know he was there, looking comfortable, and ready for an extended stay.

The first thing I do remember about him, very vividly, is that the house was full of people. They came in saying “may God forgive him,” instead of hello, and then left with the same phrase for goodbye. I didn’t recognize most of them. I imagined they were cousins and uncles and various “old people.”



I had this idea that people became “old people” pretty much overnight. One day they looked like my parents, and then the next day they were old. When they became “old people,” they began to congregate together, it seemed, and have separate little communities from the rest of us.

“Go run along and play and let us old people get on with our knitting!” they would say. And I would go off, wondering what their secret society was really up to, since there were no knitting needles in sight. They always had an endless supply of mint candies and gossip, though, and it was my great pleasure to quietly play around them pretending like I wasn’t listening.

So, it stood to reason that my grandfather, who, last I could recall, was one of these “old people,” had his own flock of elderly buddies. Why they all came to my house was a mystery to me, but they were welcome. Though this time they were whispering and murmuring, instead of shouting about the weather and arthritis. I didn’t mind them at all. I was a quiet child, after all.


Read more: Death doulas are helping to change the way we talk about death


It wasn’t long before I caught on that the whole deal was going to last three days. Three full days! The house would be open the entire time, and there would be food and drinks. Bottles of Coca-Cola were reverently kept on the buffet table in the dining room, and it was my job to make sure they were always restocked. Being able to have something imported, and from America no less, was a huge deal to my family back then. Seven years had passed since the revolution, but things like Coke or oranges were still a matter of pride for most Romanians who had spent the previous 30 years in complete isolation from anything non-Romanian.



And then, there was the living room table. I’m sure you can guess what, or who was on the living room table. There was absolutely no way I was going to go near there. It would be best if I stayed out of the living room altogether. It would be more respectful. For whom? I didn’t know, but I assumed for the people who were there on serious business. Not like me. The ones who were really sad and whispering.

I kept out of everyone’s way; spending a lot of time in the kitchen. That’s where the grandmothers and aunties hung out, and the atmosphere was decidedly less menacing and somber. They told stories, sometimes even lewd jokes that I couldn’t even begin to understand, and often talked about something called “the Democrats.” I didn’t know what these “Democrats” were but judging by my Grandmother’s tone, she wasn’t very impressed with them. It sounded like they were going to get a serious scolding for not doing their homework. The younger women would inevitably jump in and say that it doesn’t matter what they were doing, it was certainly better than before. I had to take their word for it since I wasn’t born yet in the “before.” They argued, but in a friendly, relaxed way, and all the while making plenty of food, taking turn rolling cabbage rolls and stirring pots of beans.

My favorite part of the wake meal was the dessert. If you’ve never before heard of the Romanian funeral cake “coliva” do yourself a favor and look up some images of it online. If you’re at all morbid, like I am, you may even laugh at what you find.

Coliva is the antitheses of the birthday cake. It’s a sweet spiced pudding made of mainly boiled wheat, which in itself is quite delicious. I still love eating it and sneakily make it for myself sometimes, even though we’re strictly supposed to have it only at wakes, funerals, and memorials.



The hilarious part of the Romanian funeral cake, however, is that it gets molded in the shape of, well, birthday cake. Then the cook would cover it in powdered sugar, and, I kid you not, decorate it with crosses made out of candy. They would often stencil phrases like “forever remembered” in cocoa on top. The more creative grandmothers, like mine, have been known to sometimes use skittles to shape the cross, and cover the sides of it in rainbow sprinkles.

I remember seeing my grandmother in the kitchen, dressed in black, as if it was yesterday. She was bent over the table making miniature versions of this coliva cake in little cups. After they were cooled and decorated, she put them in small gift bags along with a scone, a candle, and a hand towel. We were supposed to give the packages to the people who came to visit us as they were leaving.

I had so many questions I couldn’t guess the answers for. Why the boiled wheat? Why the towel? Why the sprinkles?! When I finally did manage to ask something, it was “why are we giving these packages to people?”

I’d meant it as “why specifically cake and towels,” but she thought I wanted to keep all the cake for myself.

She told me that we are giving out these small gifts to people so they might say a prayer for our loved one, or forgive grandfather for some wrongdoing. It would give him a better chance of getting to heaven, she explained to me. I had a feeling when she said that, she thought my grandfather needed us to do a LOT of giving.



Years later, while researching Romanian orthodox funeral traditions, I found out the secret behind the towel. No, it wasn’t some Eastern-European prelude to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Always know where your towel is!). It was supposed to be a handkerchief, you know, for the crying. My grandmother, however, always the practical one, thought that handkerchiefs were too flimsy and old fashioned. She felt a towel was something the guests could take home and make real use of.

Because of course, you’d want to keep the death towel in your bathroom. Who wouldn’t?

I also found out a lot of other things that we’re supposed to do to help our loved ones get to heaven. Grandma, ever the source of folklore and stories for me, told me some of them over the three days of the wake. It was vital we have a lit candle at the head of the person as they are dying. They would need the light to help them find their way when they die.

Though at the time she didn’t mention what would happen if the dead didn’t find their way to the afterlife, I knew it very well from our regional folklore. The restless dead coming awake to bother the living was a widespread belief and is probably the source of most of the vampire mythology that Bram Stoker later popularized, though most of the real folklore was lost in translation. Not so long ago, when my grandmother was in her 30’s, they were still performing ritual exhumation of the bodies of those suspected to have come back as “Strigoi” – essentially a precursor of both vampires and zombies.

She had told me the story of a widow in her village who complained that her late husband was visiting the house at night. They took a horse into the graveyard as a test – if the horse refuses to jump over the grave, it means that there’s trouble. Apparently, it did, and my grandmother also swears that when they exhumed the grave, the body was as fresh as the day he died. I will spare you the gruesome details of what happens next, suffice to say it involved garlic, holy water, and sharp instruments.

Knowing that story, it was quite clear to me why by no means should the moment of death catch any of us with an extinguished candle.



And we absolutely have to cover all of the mirrors in the house with black cloth! Otherwise, he might get lost inside the mirrors and haunt us. For the same reason, there could be no locked doors in the house that might block his passage.

Oh, and you had to put coins in the palms of the deceased. Grandfather would use them, I was told, to pay the tolls while he traveled. You could also give the dead a needle and thread, and a comb. All useful things they may need. I wondered why, since they were allowed to take things, nobody had thought it necessary to give them a book to read on their journey. That would undoubtedly have been on my list.

Then, of course, there were the professional mourners. They were there to sing, shout, cry and wail, and generally give a good show. Folktales told us loud mourning was a sign of respect; but also a way of convincing the spirits that this person was important and worthy of attention. It may sound like a strange thing to do, paying someone to cry, but it isn’t. I assure you. There is a real purpose for this tradition, and it serves the living and the dead.



You see, according, to Romanian funeral traditions, a truly good mourner not only seems completely sincere but genuinely is so. It’s not too hard to imagine having genuine feelings of compassion and sorrow for someone who passed away. Their songs and poems often refer to the people who are left behind. “Why did you have to go,” “now they have nobody to take care of them,” “how will they go on without you” are common lyrics to their plaintive cries. And, most of all, the tone of sadness in their delivery could make stones weep.

The result of all of this is going to sound very familiar to any of you who have ever had a good cry. I mean one of those heart-wrenching, half-hour, sobbing, devastating cries. What happens after you are swept away by an earth-shattering cry is no less than a miracle of chemistry: you feel better. The song of the mourners has the same effect.

If you are ever curious to see what I’m talking about, there are plenty of real videos online of real live mourning situations. You only need to search for the word “bocitoare.” It’s quite beautiful and haunting, but I warn you, it might not be for you.



The truth is that these experiences that I grew up with shaped a lot of who I am and how I see death. They formed everyone from my culture. They are the reason why I can listen to the cries of the mourners and feel better afterward (or listen to Nick Cave, for that matter).

Romanian funeral traditions demand we say “the dead”

When people at the wake spoke about my grandfather, there were no politically correct terms. There was no “the recently deceased” in my language, no “dearly departed.” We simply say the dead. In fact, there isn’t even a distinction between the body and the part that journeys to the afterlife. We say that the dead is laying on the table, and the dead is moving on. It is the same person. That’s a big part of the reason why I don’t really have a fear of death and think of it as a very normal, simple thing. Where, for my husband, it might be “Death,” for me it’s just death. And death is ok.

This story of my grandfather’s Romanian funeral ends much as it begins, with everyone passing through the door of my childhood home, in the opposite direction this time. The three days of wake were over, the soul of my grandfather had (presumably) arrived safely on the other side, and we were getting ready to go to the funeral and perform the last rites for his body. We were just waiting for the saxophonist.

Wait, saxophonist?

Oh yeah. I’d better tell you all about the burial too. Next time.


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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.

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