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A Latvian Funeral in 1700

Updated on November 12, 2014
Depiction of altar in Lithuania from 1684 manuscript
Depiction of altar in Lithuania from 1684 manuscript | Source
Latvian peasant house and courtyard
Latvian peasant house and courtyard | Source
Bath House in Latvia where rituats honoring Laima took place - considered to be a variation of Māra
Bath House in Latvia where rituats honoring Laima took place - considered to be a variation of Māra | Source

A Latvian Funeral in 1700

Latvians have always believed in an afterlife. In pagan times it was an underworld Aizsaule ruled over by the Goddess Mara who took the body of the dead person while Dievs took their soul. Latvians were not afraid of death, it was understood as a transition from this life to the life of the after world. Folk songs speculate about what part of life the dead miss most or at what age it is hardest to die. Latvians explained fear of death saying they are not yet able to leave the sun. Some thought the soul was reborn after 100 years.

Perhaps this attitude was because premature death was so common. 5% of the population died every year according to the University of Latvia. Death was not thought of as the end of existence. Latvians lived with ghosts like family members. The dead, traditionally called Veļi visited from September to November 10.The dead were thought to be able to hear the living. Walking on graves was unthinkable.

Latvians ate the morning after the death with the spirit. They left out food and drink for breakfast and introduced him to the others at the table. They asked the deceased whether he/she was at peace, interpreting silence as agreement. If a young man or girl died without marrying, the crowd was to get drunk after midnight as at a wedding and dance.

Christianity did not penetrate the mentality of the peasants. They often buried their dead secretly with ancestors; even though there were laws making it illegal not to bury the dead through the church.

A typical peasant lived in a two room cabin and behind it was a cabin that was poorly built to store grain and smoked meat. In that hut they stored wedding clothes, a bed for guests which was also a place for privacy on wedding nights. This bed was the place the dead were placed.

A funeral was to comfort the living. There were to be no excessive tears to make the departure difficult. If a person knew they were dying they would light a candle for their path to the other world. All wishes such as for water or food were fulfilled or it was thought the ghost will want these thing for eternity, though the dying were not to have honey or milk. This would take a blessing from the cattle and bees.

Mother Earth, the pagan goddess Mara was supposed to wait for three days to claim the dead. So Christian tradition remained. The first day was preparation. The house and clothes were cleaned. The family could not do 'normal' work or bathe. Windows, gates and doors were kept open so that the person's soul could escape. If the man was old, the room was decorated with oak branches. The young or middle-aged man had the room decorated with birch twigs. For a dead woman lime-twigs were used.

Women, usually relatives, washed and dressed the body in holiday clothes with a cap. Children or unmarried girls and boys were buried in white. White was the color of mourning. Scissors were not used to make the shroud, the material was to be torn. The body was left with candles around it to keep away evil spirits. They threw the water from the washing into the ground and planted a tree on the spot. The soul was supposed to regard this as his home. Christians introduced the idea the body was not to be left alone to keep the devil from creeping in.

Guests were then invited, which usually meant the whole village on the second day. The body was laid on the bed in the storage hut, and his hands and feet were tied so his ghost couldn't wonder. The wake lasted all night with songs and dances. One person would sing and the others repeat. The hostess brought barley soup with sour cream and beer to mourners. Bread loaves were cut with pocket knives to use butter since no knives were provided at a funeral. They were not to cook. The neighbors brought food, milk and bread.

Iron, earth, salt and water, all protection from evil, and were placed under the bed.

Then the mourners gathered around the body. Each mourner was asked if the dead had lacked something like bread and silence was taken as a negative. They drank the beer. Then the host said good night and asked the dead not to forget his relatives and friends.

The next day was the burial. The body was pointed toward the door. If the candles went out in the night it meant that someone else in the house would die. Before the body left the women asked why he had died when he had a wife, children cattle and other possessions. The parents, sisters and children would remain at home and do a ritual dance. The clothes of the dead were burned, as these would come into the possession of the dead. The ashes were put at the corners of the house.

The men of the village dug the grave on the day of the funeral so the walls would not fall in, which was considered a bad omen. They also built him a coffin. As they worked they made the sign of the cross again and again to protect them from evil. The body was put in the coffin right before being taken to the graveyard. They placed a padding and pillow of wood shavings under the body, with a cloth cover.

The company walked three times around the coffin to protect the dead. They placed practical items in the grave as they had in prehistoric times; tobacco, pipes, cigarettes and alcohol; handicrafts for women. Both sexes had soap and a sauna whisk, and walking sticks. The body also had a pot of honey to eat. In some places they poured a bucket of water after the corpse left.

Then the party went to the cemetery. Originally this was done with waving hands and screaming to drive demons away. The men carried the closed coffin balanced on their shoulders with pieces of wood, following a trail laid down from the cabin to the graveyard with spruce branches. There were also broken branches and felled trees. This was so the dead will not get confused and go home. The pall bearers could not look back or it would bring disaster on their family.

There was no loud mourning. The pall bearers walked three times around the grave and lowered the coffin down on embroidered towels. The flowers and wreaths were put on the coffin along with three handfuls of dirt, and the grave was filled up.

Some food was served at the graveyard. Food and beer were thrown to the earth at the entrance of the graveyard with smashed pots for the dead to eat.

Then the mourners had a feast. After going to the cemetery there was always hand washing. The men and women would sit at separate tables. Each family brought a dish. The first taste was given to a dog to rid it of pollution. The food included fried carp which was supposed to swim to the deceased, rye bread, cheese, pork roast, gray peas, green beans, thick oat porridge, kale flavored with meat and beer. Speeches were made about the deceased. There was more singing and dancing. Everyone at the funeral had to drink beer.

If a funeral day was good it meant the dead had done good in his life. If there was rain it was a blessing raining down on the survivors.

Then the left over worldly possessions of the deceased were distributed. If the will of the person was not fulfilled than he would cause harm. Everyone went home and the family went to the grave site the next day.


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    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      I thoroughly enjoyed this well written hub.

      Here's to so many more for us both to share on here.