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
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
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.