European death rites

Europe like any other part of world has its numerous death rites, meaning traditions at the moment of death, at the funeral and those that exist during period of mourning.

In Romanian province of Transylvania people believe that for each person there are his/her own tree and his/her star. The falling of a star symbolically marks the death of a person. Fir is the tree of life. It is put at the head of the grave of a deceased.

After the death group of young men brings the fir from forest. At the entrance of the village group of women meets them. They sing about the relation between the man and the tree. As sung in the song, the fir tree feels obliged to dry and rot near to his brother (deceased person).

There are more songs which are sung as part of local death rites. One of them is "Cântecul bradului, Al cetinii sau Al sulitii" ("The Song of the Pine", "Of the pine needles" or "Of the spear"). The song is dedicated to all those who die young and single. The fir tree brought from the wood is decorated and it represents the wedding fir tree. In this song the tree is kind of complaining that instead of happy destiny of being put in some building it'll wither on the grave.

Other songs of similar nature are “At the window", "Of the way", "For the accompanying", "Of the grave" etc. These songs include advices on what the dead person should do. They tell him that he must stay in friendly relations with, for example, the wolf who knows the secret paths of the forests.

In the Romanian Maramureş county there is a village called Săpânţa. Local cemetery is rather special. It is known as The Merry Cemetery (in Romanian “Cimitirul Vesel”). It includes about 800 beautiful tombstones with naïve paintings. Each tombstone has colourful and often funny description of the life deceased used to lead. The author of these tombstones was the local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş (1908—1977).

Merry Cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania
Merry Cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania

In Poland a door and windows of the house where someone died should be opened to allow the soul of the deceased to leave. Mirrors are covered with some cloth. Clocks are stopped. A woman, kind of a professional, is called to wash and dress the dead. Traditionally the body of the deceased is placed on boards between two chairs or two tables.

The body is put in the coffin on the day of funeral. There is always someone with the body. The family members and neighbours keep vigil during the night. People sing, pray rosary and litanies. Traditionally the body is kept in the house for three days. The funeral is held on the third day after the death.

Ireland has some similar traditions. The window is kept opened for the soul to leave the house freely. To enable this the path towards the window should be left free. If someone blocks this path it will bring bad luck to him/her. After about two hours the window should be closed to prevent the return of the soul.

Old Irish cemetery
Old Irish cemetery

Irish people hold something what is called the “wake”. The word wake comes from the old Indo-European word "wog" or "weg" which means "to be active". Later it evolved to "growth" ("vegetable"), "to become or stay alert," and "watching or guarding". Some say that the people at a wake are waiting for the deceased to "wake up”.

The wake is traditionally held between the death and the funeral. Nowadays it is also becoming common to held it after the funeral. Wake is held in home of the deceased or in special funeral parlours. Wake can be an act of mourning and paying respect to the deceased. But more and more it is actually sort of a party that combines mourning and celebration of life the deceased had. The party also celebrates his move to the afterlife.

An ancient death rite exists in the Scottish Highlands. The deceased is buried with a wooden plate on his chest. Little bit of soil and salt is put on the plate. Soil and salt have symbolical meaning. The soil means that the body will deteriorate and become one with the earth. The salt on the other side represents the soul which lives forever.

In parts of the UK it is a tradition to put coins (traditionally pennies) on the eyelids of the deceased.

In the Netherlands it was customary to cover the windows with white sheets when someone died in the house. These sheets remained until after the funeral. Nowadays this tradition is quite rare. Nobody knows for sure about the meaning of this tradition. Some say that it is done to scare off the evil spirits.

Also in the Netherlands women used to make “doodshemd” or “lijkhemd”. It was a special night dress that bride used to make for her wedding night. The bride would sow her initials on the "doodshemd" with one needle and one thread. After the wedding night the “doodshemd” was washed and put in the closet called the “linnenkast”. Beside the “doodshemd” women kept there their towels, night dresses, stockings, bed sheets etc.


When the woman died she was again dressed in her “doodshemd”. The needle used in make of the dress would be broken in half and buried with the woman. In parts of the Netherlands the needle was not buried with the woman. In this case people just threw the needle into the fire.

In Lithuania, when someone dies, there is a tradition that one female family member counts all the virtues of the deceased. If there is no family member someone else is asked to do it. This kind of mourning actually shows love, gratitude for all the good things the deceased did when he/she was alive. People also ask the dead person for help and not to forget his/her family.

In the past Lithuanians used to put different object in the coffin which supposed to help the deceased in the afterlife. Now only rosaries and pictures of saints are put inside the coffin. As soon as the dead is put in the coffin it must be taken out of the house. Everything must be done fast. It is done so that there would be no more deaths in that house.

When the coffin is already in the grave there is a tradition to put three handfuls of soil over it. It is done to wish the deceased eternal peace.

After the funeral there is a special dinner. This dinner is a treat for the soul of dead and for the soul of all other dead persons. With this dinner those who are still alive ask the dead to leave the family unharmed. The dinner is also a way to ask God for blessing.

There is one more detail. Nobody takes food from this dinner. It is believed that if someone takes little bit of food somebody in that family will die soon.

In the past Lithuanian women who were in the mourning wore white kerchiefs. White was a colour of death. In Lithuania cemeteries are usually located on some hill. That is why in the Lithuanian folklore term “high hill” is used as a synonym for cemetery.

According to an old belief in some villages in Estonia the dying person should be fed before death. This is done because if the person dies hungry he or she could ask for food from the family members in their dreams. Some even believed that it could result in general misery of those who are still alive.

In the Estonian village of Salme there used to be a belief that the hand of the dying person could heal sick person. When it was obvious that the person is going to die very soon his or her hand was put on the sick person. When doing so the following words were told - "You are departing now and take my misfortune along".

As soon as the person in Russia dies a glass of water with piece of bread on it is placed next to the body of the deceased or in the windowsill. For six weeks after death every family meal includes a glass of vodka covered with bread which is put on part of the table where the dead person used to eat.