A Romanian Funeral

August 26, 2006

After several posts about Romanian weddings, its time for a post about Romanian funerals. Today I went to my first Romanian funeral.

Before I really get into it, I’d like to first apologize to anyone who may find anything I say offensive, or irreverent or disrespectful. I don’t intend any of that. I have an anthrpologist’s sense of the world and when I attend a rite or ritual that’s new to me I tend to look at it from outside and dissect it. The following post is composed of my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and ideas. It is not intended to be authoritatrian, academic, disrespectful, or the last word on anything.

The funeral was for the father of my Romanian Godmother. Nasa (pronounced Nasha), as we call her, is the dentist for whom my mother-in-law works and she and her husband were the Godparents at my wedding.

Her father had been sick for several months and had been getting sicker so it was not a huge surprise when he passed away three days ago.

In the two plus months that I’ve been living in Romania, only one other person who was close to Marius or his family had died. His uncle (the husband of one of his mother’s sisters) died, probably from liver disease because he was a big drinker. He was only in his 40s. It was a day, or maybe two, later that we went to his Aunt’s apartment to visit. His aunt, uncle and their son live in a one room apartment. Called a Garconier, there is a kitchen, a bathroom and one room that serves as the bedroom, living/dining room. This apartment was particularly small. So I was in for a bit of a shock when the first thing I see upon walking into the apartment is the dining table in the middle of the main room with his uncle laid out on top of it.

This was the first time I had ever seen a dead body. I am Jewish and we do not have open caskets at our funerals. So I had never opportunity to see a dead body until I saw this man, in his Sunday best, stretched out on the dining table, in the middle of the apartment.

It was very creepy for me. The thing I remember most was how waxy he looked. And I noticed that again today. Nasa’s father was yellow and looked like he was made of wax. He didn’t look like he was sleeping. He didn’t look like he was at peace. He looked like he belonged in Madame Troussoud’s museum!

Unlike with Marius’ uncle, Nasa’s father was never displayed at his home. Marius says this isn’t allowed anymore. (I can’t say I blame the goverment for putting an end to that!)

The funeral took place at a beautiful Orthodox cemetary down the street from where Nasa lives, and where her mother is buried. It was a large funeral — I’ve been to smaller weddings! There must have been over 60 people there. Almost everyone was dressed in black with only a few exceptions. Many of the women wore hats, and the older ladies wore the traditional black scarves. Most of the men were in dark suits.

Let me also say I noticed that a funeral is no reason for some of the younger women to not wear skin tight clothing.

Many people come bearing a horseshoe shape “wreath” called a “crown.” They are made of evergreen brances and have flowers and all have a white banner. The crowns are piled near the body in the church and then on top of the grave once its been filled in.

The body is the first “person” to enter the church, followed by the mourners. People involved with the transportation and carrying of the body wear towels around their arms. Regular dish or bath towels! There are also towels hanging on the crosses in the church. I couldn’t find anyone who knew why this is a tradition. I’ll have to do some research!

The body is placed in the center of the church. At this funeral there were four priests and for about 40 minutes they chanted and sang in Romanian. (I taped some of the chanting and will try to get it online soon.) Then one of the priests gave a speech about life and death and God and Jesus, and then a second priest talked a bit about the deceased. He seemed to only state facts like when he was born, what his job was, who he married, who his children were and grandchildren. It seemed sad to have someone’s life boiled down to such bare facts. I don’t, and can’t, believe that such facts are what our lives are about. I mean, did he have a sense of humor? Did he like to play football? Did he like his beer? Did he like to give hugs? Was he proud of his children? Those are the facts that make a person. Aren’t they?

While the priests were chanting two women, including my mother-in-law, handed out candles and what looked like a handkerchief to all the men. Called an “homage” they are only given to men. Traditionally, the candles are lit in the church but no one lit theirs because it would have been to smoky if they had. The handkerchiefs are for the men to keep. Again, no clue as to why this is a tradition or why only men get them.

During the funeral service it started to pour outside. Marius leaned over and whispered to me that its believed that if it rains during a funeral it means the deceased is sad and didn’t want to die.

After the priests are finished, mourners can say good-bye to the deceased. For me, as a Jew who has seen only two bodies and certainly never touched one, this was both repelling and horribly fascinating. When saying good-bye, people either touched the man’s hands, or kissed him, or even tried to hug him. In some ways I think these practices are better than hiding the dead body. People here aren’t afraid of the dead, aren’t disgusted. It’s natural. For me, I find it all unnatural and that’s bad since death is very, very natural!

When all have paid their respects and said good-bye, the body is carried out on a wooded bier. It is preceded by people carrying the “crowns” and is followed by the priest(s) and the immediate family. At this funeral, the immediate family was the man’s second wife (of 22 years), Nasa and her husband and son, Nasa’s brother who flew in from France, and a few of the second wife’s children and grandchildren.

The body is taken to the grave site and lowered in. The priest says a few words and then those who want to take a handful of dirt and throw it in. The grave is then immediately filled in. As mourners depart a table with wine and some traditional funeral foods is ready. Traditional foods are a round roll of bread and something called “coliva” made from stewed wheat grains and sweetened with honey.

All in all, the Romanian funeral is very different from any funeral I’ve ever been to, but then I’ve only ever been to Jewish funerals. So perhaps they really aren’t that different from other types of funerals. For me the sight of the actual dead body is very discomforting. And yet seeing people able to say good-bye one last time was very touching and I felt tears in my eyes when Nasa’s brother just lay his head on his father’s chest for several minutes.

Although I am glad that I went, both as a way of showing support for Nasa and because it was culturally very interesting, I hope it is a very long time before I have to go to another Romanian funeral.