Russian Funeral Traditions
Russian funeral traditions are visually breathtaking, with funeral services mostly taking place in stunning ornate buildings, and piles of beautiful flowers wreaths tastefully laid in and around the coffin. This is usually a Russian Orthodox funeral ceremony and is extremely common – over three-quarters of Russians are part of the Orthodox Church. We take a look at some of these religious traditions in Russia and other cultural influences on funeral rituals.
Russian Orthodox funerals
During the funeral service
At the funeral, close friends and relatives will walk up to the open coffin at the church service, and then circle it in an anti-clockwise direction. This gives mourners the opportunity to pay their respects to the deceased. It is common for mourners to kiss the dead, as well as lay flowers inside the coffin as they circle it. However, it is required that friends and relative should only provide flowers in even numbers, and should be wearing dark clothing.
At the head of the casket, there will usually be a bowl of koliva placed by it, (this is a Russian meal made with boiled wheat and honey), a candle is also placed by the casket. This ritual is supposed to symbolise the sweetness of Heaven and the circle of life. Lit candles are also given to all mourners present at the funeral services and they remain lit throughout.
The service will also have readings from the Psalms, hymns as well as readings from scripture. The First Panikhida (a memorial service specifically for followers of the Orthodox Church) is also given. Depending on the service, it is not uncommon for the priest to also sprinkle a small amount of soil and holy oil into the coffin after people have paid their respects. The burial shroud is then pulled up by the priest to cover the body of the deceased.
After the funeral service
Mourners will usually follow the coffin to the burial site and a short service held by a priest will be given. A Russian folk funeral tradition includes throwing branches of juniper and fir as the procession takes place, which some Russians still choose to do.
At the graveside, a priest may put a crown made of paper onto the dead prior to the casket being lowered into the ground. This may have the words of a prayer on it. It is common for mourners to throw coins and soil onto the grave too. For the nourishment of the person who has passed, mourners may also leave boiled rice and raisins in the grave.
Another death ritual includes choosing a different route back after the burial has taken place. The idea behind this, is that it would confuse evil spirits who may be present. The bereaved also make sure that they throw away their handkerchiefs soon after the burial. It is a strong belief that if you bring these into your home, you are also bringing tears into the house.
In Russia, relatives and friends will usually gather and hold a reception, to reflect on the life of the deceased and will usually organise a ‘mercy meal’ meant to honour the dead. Common funeral foods include Blinis a type of Russian pancake. These are symbolically significant in Russia: they are thought to represent both the beginning and end of life, as not only are these pancakes typically served at funerals, but they are also given to new mothers.
Typically, funerals will be held on the third day after the death, which is also when the ‘mercy meal’ is held. On the ninth day of someones passing a church service is held. It is a common belief in Russia that the ninth day represents the moment when the soul leaves the body. On the fortieth day, another memorial meal and service are held, representing the moment the soul has left the earth. To honour the deceased during this moment, a piece of black bread covering a glass of vodka is left for the dead. This a reversal of a Russian tradition to break black bread for someone you have just met.
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