LITHUANIAN CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
 

 
 
 


Velines

 

FUNERAL TRADITIONS

In Lithuania the dead were most often and are still buried in the ground, most not cremated.
In the 11th 13th centuries BC and in the 5th 14th centuries AD, there was the tradition of burning the dead. Urns containing the remains of the dead were buried in the ground.
The first information about burial customs is found in the 9th century, it was written by Wulfstan, an Anglo-Saxon sailor visiting Lithuania. He wrote about the inhabitants of the eastern shore of the Baltic sea whose custom it was to keep their dead frozen for several months before burning them, while feasting and playing during that time. His writings contain detailed descriptions of Lithuanian burial traditions. 
All this written information, together with innumerable descriptions of Lithuanian folk beliefs and archeological data help to better understand the essence of Lithuanian burial traditions, ceremonies and to define the chronological order. Burial traditions are made of: nursing the ill and attending the dying; laying out the dead and staying on watch by the coffin; burying the dead; celebrating the dead by good reminiscences.
Lithuanians looked to death very realistically, considered death to be the main path to happy afterlife world, which they described as a beautiful garden, far away across the waters, on a big mountain. This garden is a celestial paradise, always warm with no winters and in autumn birds fly in to this land. The Milky Way seen on a clear night is the direct path to paradise. Such understanding of the land of everlasting happiness convinced our ancestors to state that only good and honest people could find a home there. Evil people had to carry out the cleansing penalty while still on earth, temporarily changing into trees, animals or birds.
Lithuanians believed that death is assigned to each person forehand, no matter how careful he is, he will definitely die of the death prescribed to him.
In Lithuanian folklore and beliefs, death is imagined as having a true material shape, tall, bony, blind, hollow cheeked woman with a scythe in her hands. The name of death is "Giltinë". Death lurks about at night, catches a person unawares, ambushing him unexpectedly. Dogs, cats, horses and some birds who see death, take on strange and unnatural behavior. The presence of death nearby is defined by several, strange occurrences: a loaf of bread in the oven breaks into parts, ceilings or walls start cracking, a mirror falls and breaks, beekeepers find cross or coffin shaped honeycombs in the hives, people dream of a tooth being pulled or they are visited in their dreams by their dead relatives. Dying according to folk beliefs is separation of the soul from the body. The soul leaves the body like a shadow or a mist, in two breaths: one from the chest and the other from the throat. As a person is dying, all windows and doors are opened wide so that the dying person's soul and his relatives' souls, who came to meet him could fly out freely. Relatives and nearest neighbors were informed about the dying person so that they could take part in his dying and the dying person could say good-bye to all, forgive each other all life's disagreements. It was believed that no one in the house should sleep during this time, it was important to awaken sleepers so that they do not wallow in deepest sleep. Even babies were kept awake. The master's death was immediately announced to all domestic animals, bees were informed by a knock on the hive in order to prevent the master's soul from taking all the animals with her. 
While taking care of the ill person and after his death, silence due to respect shown to the raging soul of the dead person, prevails in the home until the soul leaves after the dead person is buried. 
Lithuanians always dressed their dead in their very best clothes or sewed special clothes, shrouds, called funeral wedding garb. The tradition of sending the dead off to their after life was like seeing them off to a festival, well dressed, with abundant decorations. This is evident in archeological monuments and written sources describing various historical periods. Until 1960's dressed dead bodies were not laid in coffins but were laid on boards covered with white linen, set in the best part of the house, near the back wall with feet facing the door. The corpse was laid out in this position for 3 or more days. Since ancient times family and relatives watch by the side of their dead day and night, while neighbors gather in the evenings, to sing and pray.
Ancient written sources refer to Lithuanian funerals as feasts for the souls of the dead. Those attending the funeral drink to a ritual goodbye and bid a happy journey to eternity to the soul of their dead friend. The first act of this ritual drinking was to pour beer honoring Goddess Žemyna. This act was exhaustively described by M.Pretorijus. Despite various restrictions by the Church, Lithuanians always kept it imperative to regale everyone present at the funeral. That was the biggest Lithuanian family feast, lasting several days. It was said of those in a hurry to bury their dead, " the dead person was not allowed to spend even a night in his home or the dead person was not treated to ritual foods". 
Without doubt Lithuanian funeral traditions are very old. In recent times there are no ritual food treats for the souls of the dead. Still everybody understands the necessity of preparing a ritual meal as the need to carry out the last wishes of the dead person and appropriate farewell. This is why all the attendees to bid farewell are treated to a ritual funeral meal.
The tradition of singing religious songs at the funeral was introduced by the clergy in place of moaning and mourning over the dead. The tradition of moaning and mourning over the dead, in Baltic nations was first mentioned in the 13th century Livonian Chronicles. In 1426 M.Jungë forbade Lithuanians of Eastern Prussia to mourn and moan over their dead. Those who did not obey this order were threatened with monetary fines. In 1638 the accounts of the Church in Isrutis show orders to punish those who disobey, because Lithuanians allowed beggars and prophets to mourn their dead by singing and gave them meat, bread, grain, clothes and other items as payment.
In the 19th century L.Jucevièius mentions the custom of mourning in Samogitia: "a woman family member mourns over the dead person, counts all the dead person's virtues. If there is no mourner among the family, then a non family member is asked". The custom of mourning over the dead person is still practiced in places of south eastern Lithuania. People wept while washing, dressing the dead person and between songs. Deepest moments of mourning were placing the dead person into the coffin, leaving home and lowering the coffin into the grave at the cemetery. While mourning, all the good deeds of the dead person are mentioned and events connected with his life. The sad fate of his orphan children is described and mourners bid goodbye in the name of the dead person, to relatives, friends and home. Mourning is one of the elements of funeral traditions which shows love, gratitude the living offer to the dead person, because the dead person is praised, asked to help and not to forget the family, visit, defend and protect it. Word eulogy is a form of conversation with the nearby soul of the dead person, for it was believed that during all funeral rites, the soul stays near the dead person so that she hears and sees everything. This Lithuanian tradition of mourning over their dead no doubt originated together with first descriptions of afterlife. 
According to Lithuanian traditions, the dead person was laid in the coffin just before being taken to the cemetery. Archaeological and ethnic sources show that Lithuanians imagine the coffin to be the after death home and for this reason they made a comfortable and cosy coffin. The inside of the coffin was lined with white cloth and sacred herbs were placed inside. Since ancient times, till the 20th century, tools and other necessary items were placed inside the coffin so as to provide the dead person will all necessities for his afterlife. Now, only religious articles are placed inside, rosaries and pictures of saints. Based on religious beliefs, the placing of the dead person in the coffin meant the final separation from the living, because it was believed that while the dead person lies on the boards, inside the house, he hears everything but when the dead person is put into the coffin, he hears nothing more.
As soon as the dead person was placed in the coffin, the coffin was taken out without delay, so that there would be no more deaths in that home. For that same reason Lithuanians hurry to remove all funeral regalia.
In earlier times Lithuanians buried their dead in the afternoon, at sunset. Even in the 18th century, till the beginning of the 19th century, they unwillingly allowed priests to meddle in the family's funeral arrangements. Only when Christian priests began demanding that the chantings for the dead be carried out in church and burials take place in cemeteries near churches, traditional, afternoon burial time was moved to the morning. In those places where the dead are buried in village cemeteries, the funeral still takes place in the afternoon. It is said the sun is low on the horizon, it's time for burial. 
In funeral rites there is tradition when the coffin is lowered into the grave, of pouring 3 handfuls of earth over the coffin, wishing the dead eternal peace. According to the Catholic church's teachings, this should remind people that they came from dust and will return to dust. It is believed that pouring earth over the coffin is the last service to the dead, in parting. Pouring earth 3 times is an ancient magic ritual with a purpose to chase the soul of the dead person from among the living so that no one would fear it. 
In all of Lithuania there was and still remains, the tradition of inviting everyone from the cemetery to the funeral dinner, either to the house of the dead person or to a public facility. This dinner is an ancient tradition of treating the soul of the dead person together with the souls of dead family members, also asking them to leave the family and home without harming anyone and asking God for his blessing.
The funeral dinner is a recent variant of the ancient ritual foods served at the cemetery after the burial. Signs of which are described by J.A.Brand in the 18th century, as well as by other sources. Since the funeral dinner is assigned to the souls of the family, it is not customary for anyone to take any food from the host. If some food is taken home, someone may soon die in that family. Taking food home means taking death home.
It is acceptable, while still in mourning for the dead, not to arrange christenings, weddings or take part in parties. Children, whose parents died, women, whose husbands died and husbands, whose wives died, according to tradition, their mourning should extend for a year. No outward mourning was shown for the deaths of small children. It was believed that mother should not cry over her small child for a length of time because the child will be wet from mother's tears.
In Lithuania black is now the color of mourning, people dress in black, women wear black kerchiefs. Some 30 years ago, attending funerals and during the mourning period, women wore white kerchiefs. The fact that ancient Lithuanians dressed their dead in white, shows that white was the color of death and of mourning. 
It is understood that relationships with the dead do not break when the mourning period comes to an end. The family thinks about their dead constantly, sees them in their dreams, prays for them, waits for their return visits during calendar and family holidays and takes special care of their grave sites.
In Lithuania, cemeteries are usually established in hilly regions. That is why in folklore, 
"the high hill " is synonymous with the word cemetery. Cemeteries are under a thick cover of trees and grave sites are covered with flowers. Since ancient times a variety of monuments are placed on the grave sites. The ancient gravestone monuments are very original in the old cemeteries of Klaipëda region, called christenings. They are boards with various profiles. Such grave monuments can still be found near the Kuronian sea, in Nida and around Rusnë.
In autumn when field works were finished, Lithuanians performed rituals honoring souls of their ancestors. Ancient historical sources call this autumn, commemoration holiday of the dead "Ilgës ", while in eastern Lithuania it is called All Souls' Day [ a.k.a. Vëlinës, Dziadai ]. Written sources mention that this holiday is at the end of October or beginning of November. Old Lithuanian traditions of commemorating the dead are connected with the belief that the souls of the dead leave 
the afterlife world, return home to visit the family and for this reason the souls are remembered according to ancient rituals. J.Dlugosh mentions that people from all regions gather in cemeteries, bring foods and feast there for several days. While there, they make offerings to the Gods, especially to God of Thunder [ a.k.a. Perkûnas ], so that he would strengthen the souls of the dead. According to A.Grauninis, people visited the graves of family and friends, brought milk, beer, mead and feasted, danced, blew pipes and beat drums. Even the poorest people carried on in the same fashion. Women wept for their dead husbands, remembering their goodness and capabilities. After that the women prepared a huge supper, before which the oldest family member filled a scoop with different grains, flour and salt, set it on fire with a greeting " for all our friends ". After that they feasted and sang ancient chants.
When Christianity was firmly established, many ancient customs and rituals, commemorating the dead and feeding rituals of the souls died out while rituals were continued in the home. Having accepted Christianity, Lithuanians during Catholic feast days continued ancient traditions inherited from their ancestors.
Ancient ritual feeding traditions of the souls, confused with Christian customs in 19th century, were still practiced in regions of the Highlands as well as in eastern Lithuania. A bathhouse was heated for souls of ancestors, parents and family members. The number of chairs, shirts and towels set in the bathhouse equaled the number of invited souls. Feasting took place after bathing. The table was laden with a bounty of foods and libations and left for the souls to feast on. After the souls' feasting, foods and libations were taken to the cemetery [ later to church ].
T.Narbutas writes that at the beginning of the 19th century, in the region of Lyda, Lithuanians prepared dark foods for the souls, blood soup and sausages, dried mushroom soup, various porridges, hodgepodge and cottage cheese dumplings. The house was swept clean after food preparation, table was covered with a white cloth and everyone gathered around the table in silence. When the food was set on the table, the host uttered, " dear souls of our dead, which this household remembers, dear family ancestors, men and women, especially my grandparents, my parents, everyone that death took away from this home, you are all welcome to this annual feast.
Let this feast be as pleasant to you as to us is sweet your memory". After a short silence, he continued, " sit down and eat as much as your gods allow you to ". Silence ruled the house. When it was felt that the souls were satiated, the host would say, " forgive us dear souls, be healthy. Farewell, bless us, give peace to this home. Go where fate takes you, do remember when coming and going across doorsteps, the yard, gardens, meadows, fields, don't do any harm ". All those gathered in the house, bowed their heads and said, " there is not, there is not a soul". Then the hostess removed the food from the table, tuned the other side of the tablecloth, replaced the food on the table, then began prayers and feasting of the living. 
When Christianity took root, only two day feasting continued from earlier, weeklong celebrations. At the end of 19th century and even at the beginning of the 20th century, it was believed that in the night from 1st to 2nd of November, souls of the dead returned to earth, to chursh to pray and visit their families. That is why expecting the souls on the eve of All Souls' Day, windows and doors were wide open, houses and bathhouses were heated, so that the souls would be warm. Dogs were shut to allow the souls safe entry. Sharp objects were hidden to prevent injuries. Signs of the souls' presence were very evident: rustling of wind and dry leaves, creaking of trees or doors, water splashing and wandering fires. Unnecessary walkings were avoided so as not to disturb the souls. No sweepings or ashes were taken out so as not to scatter them into the souls' eyes, no water was poured out so as not to wet the souls. Even children were kept from playing games and pranks.
It was believed that on that day it was dangerous to travel or leave the house at night, leave animals outside because the souls of the dead could harm them. 
Since ancient times, people put cemeteries in order and decorated gravesites before All Souls' Day. On that day, they visited the gravesites of family and relatives, lit candles and prayed. They also commemorated and prayed for those buried in foreign lands. In the evening, the family gathered at table, prayed and ate in silence. If a piece of food fell on the floor, it was left on the floor for those souls whom no one invited. Food was left on the table over night. Next day it was distributed to beggars. It was believed that beggars were the middlemen between the souls of the dead and the living. Lithuanians honored beggars, fed them and gave alms to them. To this day, Lithuanians continue the tradition on All Souls' Day and on other feast days, of distributing food, money and giving names of the dead to the beggars.
Lithuanians always respected the memory of their dead, cemeteries were sacred and peaceful places, ancient traditions, honoring the dead were passed on from generation to generation. 
Even today, All Souls' Day is celebrated all over Lithuania, all family members gather together to visit family graves. They decorate the gravesites with flowers, greens, lit candles and wreaths. A memorial requiem mass is held in churches.The main tradition this day is the ritual meal shared by the entire family, during which the dead are remembered. Believers and nonbelievers, consider it their duty on this day to visit gravesites not only of family members but also of famous people of the nation. All Souls' Day is a day of peace, unity, concentration, continuing parents' and ancestors' mandates of remembering the dead. When the last leaves fall from the trees, everyones' thoughts travel in the same direction toward the high hills. We do not reflect why everything is done this way, however we know that our parents behaved in this fashion, so we must carry on with this tradition. 


 


 
 

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