pühapäev, jaanuar 27, 2008

varbla matus


Last week we drove out to Viljandimaa to visit Epp's grandparents, Karl and Laine. Karl just turned 80 a few weeks ago, and he was in good spirits despite dozing off several times during our little party for him. Laine is pushing 80 and is quite active. During the visit she allowed us to borrow some old family photos, including the incredibly sad one above.

It's of a funeral for 1-year-old Voldemar Landmann, Laine's older brother, who died in 1929 in Varbla Parish. Had he lived, he might be like Karl, dozing off at a party somewhere, surrounded by younger generations of relatives, collecting a state pension, and watching the Estonian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on ETV. But that was not to be.

If you look closely you'll see that there is an open casket. To this day, Estonians see nothing wrong in taking a group shot with the recently deceased. I never quite figured out who was in the right when it came to this cultural peculiarity.

Are Estonians more in touch with the cycles of life, and so comfortable with death that they commemorate funerals with group photographs? Or are they simply insensitive and enamored with technology, snapping photos of kittens and coffins alike with an itchy finger so that they can upload them to share with friends?

I am not really sure, but it is sometimes uncomfortable to flip through a family photo album with Estonian friends, only to see their grandma there, laid out on display in a church and surrounded by mourners. It sort of ruins the moment. On the other hand, you are photographed at birth, and at your wedding. Why not at your funeral too?

30 kommentaari:

Helen ütles ...

interesting. i had similar thoughts recently when my grandma died. being far away in Asia, i noticed how any talk of the funeral or talk of the death of my grandma or the photos of the funeral sent to me by family, made my friends here feel uncomfortable. I never thought it was impolite to take photos at funeral and have done it myself several times at other funerals, so the family and friends could have something ... yes, writing it out it may-be even seems weird. but i do know also Estonians who don't like to collect photos of funerals. and same time our family album is also filled with old photos like you posted and many from newer times as well ...
customs and traditions surrounding death and funerals are very culture specific. I have learned here that for Chinese it is a celebration if the deceased lived longer than 80 years, as family should be happy that he was given such a long life.

Blogaddict ütles ...

Interestig topic. I think, to be estonian is in an essence to possess a certain cavalier attitude toward death (due to our history, you simply had no other choice). It is not an outright death wish, but not too far from it either. To further one's understanding, take a ride on Tallinn-Tartu maantee. :-)

In my life I've met people who are, if not ethnically, then in spirit - pure blood Estonians just like myself. You can spot them at ski-slopes, bungee jumping and skydiving events and even at hot-dog eating competitions (I only observed there).

As for taking pictures of our dead - that's just the same pagan culture we have under our skin. We don't go to heaven like christians do. We stay right where we are. So why insult somebody who's died by leaving them out of their own party pictures?

Max ütles ...

Some interesting facts about Old Esto death customs at

http://www.folklore.ee/tagused/nr25/summ.htm

http://haldjas.folklore.ee/folklore/vol5/mikko.htm

Max ütles ...

Souls'visiting time in Estonian folk calendar:

http://folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/usund/ingl/hiiemae.html

mina ütles ...

Well, it is the last time everyone sees the departed one. So it is, as you were saying, more or less like the pictures of a birth or wedding.

It is part of the valediction ritual. My family and relatives have many albums of burial pictures dating back to beginning of the 20th century. Never thought of it as something quaint.

But if you look at it this way... makes you wonder. Dead people in family albums :D

alexDpg ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
alexDpg ütles ...

What's the big deal about casket photos anyway? You have them in US newspapers as well. Here is just one example:
Open casket in US newspaper

Instructor ütles ...

If you think this is totally uncommon in the States, you need to get out of the Manhattan bubble sometime.

What I find disturbing is the number of un-embalmed Estonian funerals in the countryside. After three days, granny starts to make noise again. Pweew.

kassandra ütles ...

Try attending a country funeral. If at all possible, the dear departed is brought home for a few days. He is generally in the garage, and available for viewing . There is generally a sit-down meal before the burial. There is always a place set at the table for the departed one. And his glass is filled with vodka.

If it is summer, the windows are open and the dear departed is placed in the flower bed. If the weather is lousy, I've seen the departed one in the next room, again with the door wide open. And the party continues after the burial, when the customary keg of beer is tapped. In my neighborhood, when someone dies, the first thing done is that a keg of beer is ordered from the local brewmaster.

The funeral is a time when all the relations and friends are together, and the departed gets a proper send-off. There is nothing morbid about it. He was a friend while alive, so why hide him when he is dead? Pictures are part of the process.

Estonians refer to the recently dead as "lahkunuke", the best translaltion for which is "the dear departed one".

Max ütles ...

Instructor said:
What I find disturbing is the number of un-embalmed Estonian funerals in the countryside. After three days, granny starts to make noise again. Pweew.


Embalming is common only in the U.S. and Canada. Embalming is considered a desecration of the body by orthodox Jewish and Muslim religions. Hindus and Buddhists choosing cremation have no need for embalming.

Embalming provides no public health benefit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Canadian health authorities. Hawaii and Ontario forbid embalming if the person died of certain contagious diseases. Many morticians have been taught, however, that embalming protects the public health, and they continue to perpetrate this myth.

Embalming does not preserve the human body forever; it merely delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death. There is some variation in the rate of decomposition, depending on the strength of the chemicals and methods used, and the humidity and temperature of the final resting place.

Ambient temperature has more affect on the decomposition process than the time elapsed after death, whether or not a body has been embalmed. In a sealed casket in above-ground entombment in a warm climate, a body will decompose very rapidly.

Embalming chemicals are highly toxic. Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while embalming. Funeral home effluent, however, is not regulated, and waste is flushed into the common sewer system or septic tank.

space_maze ütles ...

One thing I have noticed, along similar lines, is that disproportionately many gravestones in Estonia have non-deceases family members already marked on them, with the death date pending. Spouses, in general .. but when I was at metsakalmistu in Tallinn a few years ago, I also saw a lot of gravestones where people at the time in their early 40s had their names entered on a stone with their deceased parents.

I have heard of the phenomenon outside of Estonia too (especially for twins) ... but it was WAY more predominant than in any other graveyard I've ever been to.

I was told that "Estonians are pragmatic people", when I asked about this.

Max ütles ...

space_maze ütles...
One thing I have noticed, along similar lines, is that disproportionately many gravestones in Estonia have non-deceases family members already marked on them, with the death date pending.


Very common here in Canada too...

Giustino ütles ...

If you think this is totally uncommon in the States, you need to get out of the Manhattan bubble sometime.

Ha. In New York you take them to one of the Queens cemeteries and leave them there. There are just rows and rows and rows and rows of headstones.

I haven't really been outside the New York area bubble, when it comes to death and I haven't been to that many a funeral. But I have looked at a lot of a photo albums, and corpses usually aren't in them.

Kristopher ütles ...

For what it's worth, I've always taken the complete lack of cause of death in obituaries as a sign that Estonians are profoundly UNcomfortable with the idea of death.

Rainer ütles ...

To Kassandra:

"Estonians refer to the recently dead as "lahkunuke", the best translaltion for which is "the dear departed one"."

I have NEVER in my life heard a term "lahkunuke". Maybe it's a regional thing. I'ts usually always "kadunuke", "the dear gone one", "disappeared one", if you will.

mustikas ütles ...

It's not only photos; it's the whole life-death circle. I reckon how comfortable you feel with this depends on how close you were to the deceased. Both my grandparents were "sent away" from their home in Setumaa. The casket was displayed on the table in the front room that was emptied out for this purpose and the whole night and day there was a steady stream of relatives and neighbours going in and out. The customs says the body should not be left alone. Well, last summer my dad was carried out of the same room. He died at home, then was taken to the morgue for a few days, then brought back home where he stayed overnight, until the funeral the next day. Not for a few days as suggested by Kassandra but hey, it was summer. And I can assure you there was nothing funny going on with the body. In my mind, there was nothing weird or unusual about it (ok, apart from the death in the immediate family being a quite unusual event to start with). My foreign born-and bread husband however thought it dreadfully morbid. But then, maybe he is just especially sensitive about these things - he also thinks the custom of Setumaa to have a summer picnic at the graveyard on certain religious holidays is morbid. To me, it has always been a hoot.

Wahur ütles ...

For its size Estonian customs vary enormously. Those same Setus mix our Fenno-Ogre customs with Russian orthodox ones, islanders lend from Scandinavia, north differs from south etc. Soviet-time atheism has left its traces of different depth as well.
Still, based on my extensive experience, at least the death of old ones is usually just another very good reason to gather all the faraway relatives together for a good party, with an attitude "old man wouldn't have wanted us to sit and mourn but drink and sing so let's do it".
I've had somewhat funny experiences, too. Student fraternities have a custom that on the grave two songs have to be sung - mourning song and favorite song of the deceased. Last ones tend to be jolly and sometimes outright indecent. In early 90ies it took sometimes quite a bit of explaining, what hell is going on...

mina ütles ...

"Student fraternities have a custom that on the grave two songs have to be sung - mourning song and favorite song of the deceased. Last ones tend to be jolly and sometimes outright indecent. In early 90ies it took sometimes quite a bit of explaining, what hell is going on..."


The description is still valid - have seen a funeral where after mourning song the old (yes, most of them were like 60-80) friends started to sing "Lily marlen"...

I'm not shitting. It was his favourite song... "jolly good burials"

Doris ütles ...

And then there's the part of putting stuff in the coffin, you know, for the deceased so that they feel "at home" wherever they go. My grandfather got a vodka glass because he was a drunk... and my great-grandmother had her silver knitting needles because she knit a lot. My uncle had his lucky button in his coat pocket... And that's only the stuff I know my mother put along for them. There probably was more.

I mean, if you put the dearly departed in their best clothes, why not also put some things along for them. It's not all SO pagan and weird if you think about it.

Wahur ütles ...

Heh, mina, Lily Marleen is still quite nice song for funeral. Have heard a few that were quite a bit "jollier" :)
And in my own time, i am gonna come back haunting them, if they don't do it right :D

Max ütles ...

Wahur ütles...
I've had somewhat funny experiences, too. Student fraternities have a custom that on the grave two songs have to be sung - mourning song and favorite song of the deceased. Last ones tend to be jolly and sometimes outright indecent. In early 90ies it took sometimes quite a bit of explaining, what hell is going on...


I've shared those experiences too on many, many occasions, and you can imagine the explanations required in locales where the local clergy, funeral directors, and majority of attendees have never been exposed to anything so 'exotic.'
One such funeral in particular comes to mind: in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1965. Volli W. had lived there for many years and enjoyed some local prominence professinally and socially, and, as a sometime Ohio state chess champion (Volli had competed with Paul Keres back home in pre-war years), his funeral drew a large attendance.
Religious service all in English, as were all the eulogies save one. Still, it was the express wish of his widow and sons that Volli be seen off with full 'Tartu rules' by his frat brothers, so we complied.

A full crew of us drove down from Toronto and whilst holding the well-lubricated wake ('vaikne õhtu') back at our hotel, kept rotating the round-the-clock honor guard to the funeral home with lads posted in shifts around the coffin with flag, särped, caps, and rapier hilts sheathed in black crepe.
At the graveside, we were granted pride of place right after the cleric. Out of deference to the majority, I split the eulogy 50/50 between Esto and English, and our contingent was in fine voice with:

"On vendadest meil lahkund üks siit ilmast,
Ja suikund rahu unesse.
Siis leinapisar veereb meie silmast
Veel venna vaikse hauasse...


Volli's frat cap had been affixed with a silver nail to the lid of the coffin, which was covered by a crepeless frat flag, and the color guard dipped the creped flag one last time over the coffin.

One tense moment, perhaps, for the uninitiated in attendance came when (an eccentricity of our particular frat) members of the color guard clashed their rapiers across the coffin and intoned a final 'Vivat, crescat, floreat...!'

One very genteel old American came up to me afterwards and said, 'That was really impressive. But for a second I thought you guys were going to fight a duel, or something...'

Frank ütles ...

Saying among (Baltic) German Lutherans: "Jede Beerdigung hat ihr Gelächter ..."

Roughly translated: "No funeral without laughter ..."

Max ütles ...

Kristopher ütles...
For what it's worth, I've always taken the complete lack of cause of death in obituaries as a sign that Estonians are profoundly UNcomfortable with the idea of death.


The European obit is a notice of a rite of passage, not a pathologist's report. Amurkins gotta know what killed 'im, so's they can rush off and get a battery of blood tests, MRIs, CAT scans, and forth to avoid the same fate themselves... ;-))

Well, you DO find coded addenda like 'peale pikka [or 'rasket'] haigust' in Esto obits to signal that it was cancer, rather than old age, that carried off the deceased.

Europeans in general tend to visit cemeteries year-round, unlike North Americans. And there are always, regardless of whether it's a weekend or weekday, people sitting at or tending to graves, it seems. In North America, we pay for 'perpetual care' and after the final motorcade and brief graveside farewell, most relatives return seldom, if at all. I know: I've frequently had occasion to assist North American friends in locating their family plots, delving through cemetery ledgers, etc. In Europe, people always know exactly where their own are 'planted,' even if after wars and shifted borders the gravesites are not always acccessible.
I've always been a keen visior of cemeteries everywhere I've gone, not out of morbidity but because they're good places to get a feel for local history. Tombstone epigraphs are often quite informative, sometimes poetic and occasionally even humorous (the latter especially in the UK).
The Père-Lachaise in Paris must draw close to a million visitors a year. Our own Eduard Wiiralt is buried there, along with Oscar Wilde, Fréderic Chopin, Marcel Proust, Baron Rothchild, Maréchal Ney, Yves Montand, Stéphane Grappelli, Honoré de Balzac, Georges Bizet, und viele andere...
My daughter and her husband, on their honeymoon, chose to spend a day at Père-Lachaise. I asked her to take a cornflower to Wiiralt's grave... Four decades ago, during a very pleasant tour of the Harz mountains, my wife and I located the grave of Major-General Johannes Soodla in Goslar...
Point is, in the N.Am. culture of perpetual youth, we seek to distance ourselves from all reminders of mortality. I suspect that the whole morbid business of embalming, post-mortem cosmetics and horrendously expensive caskets built to outlast Abrams tanks (and rival them in weight, if you've ever helped tote one!) are geared to perpetuate an illusion that something at least lifelike can be preserved even after we go - as we all inevitably must - toes-up (or tits-up, as a token to gender equity).
The table-setting for the departed is a custom that may well vary from regionally in Estonia (being marked anywhere from Michaelmas [Mihklipäev] to Christmas Eve, often around All Hallows' Eve [aka All Souls' Eve, Hingede öö, of which N.Am. Hallowe'en is a barbaric variant devoid of meaning. But the custom is not as remote in antiquity as we might suppose. There was a quite massively attended 'Hingede öö' concert at Linnahall which I attended in 1995, with Tõnis Mägi and many of 'Estonia's' finest performing recitations.
Such remembrances serve not only to commemorate our nearest and dearest, but as reminders to the living of their mortality. They perpetuate a sense of continuity, of history.
If memory serves (and mine increasingly fails), on a private occasion in an Esto home decades ago I heard the host recite an invocation to the departed for whom food and drink had been laid out on a splendidly set table bathed in candle-light:

Oh tulge nüüd, teid kutsun ma.
Kõik piirud ma süütanud põlema.
Laud ägab söökide, jookide all
Ja õled värsked on põrandal.


Party time, all you friendly beloved ghosts! You're welcome, and we remember you in life as we hope you remember us in death.
Memento mori...

stockholm slender ütles ...

These days in Finland you still have an open coffin when you move the body from the hospital mortuary to the Church chapel to wait for the funeral. Relatives and friends gather for that occasion with photographs taken and (at least in my Pietist family) a hymn is sung at both ends of the journey. I lastly participated at such an occasion 2 years ago. At the actual funeral the coffin is then closed. Well, at least this is the custom in some rural parts of the country, maybe in the urban areas it not done any more.

It is hard to see any human custom as very odd as regards death (if not hiding the fact of death can be seen as such): there are countless variations when it comes to burial. In my parents' childhood it was still the custom to have the open coffin in the yard of the farm - my uncle died in a farm accident in the 1930's when he was only 15 and his body was displayed in their yard. I don't think that as bizarre at all - as odd as it now would feel. That's what you did those days.

plasma-jack ütles ...

It's funny that while we wouldn't feed our close ones to pigs, vultures or dogs, we nevertheless have no problem feeding them to worms.

plasma-jack ütles ...

A large procession of Parsees, having accompanied the body as far as this spot, turn and wait outside the tower. The priests then place the body, if a man, in the first circle; if a woman, in the second circle; if a child, in the third: in the centre there is the door, well covered with a grating. The priests then stay and watch. The vultures descend; they fly round the moment they see a procession coming, and have to be kept at bay until the right moment. The body is picked clean in an hour by these vultures. It is considered very lucky if they pick out the right eye first instead of the left, and the fact is reported by the priests to the sorrowing relatives. When the bones are perfectly clean, a Parsee priest pushes them into the well. When rain comes, it carries off the ashes and bones; and the water runs through these four outlets, with charcoal at the mouths to purify it, before entering and defiling the earth, which would become putrid and cause fever. The Parsees will not defile the earth by being buried in it, and consider it is an honour to have a living sepulchre. The vultures have on an average, when there is no epidemic, about three bodies a day, so that they can never be said to starve. The whole thing struck me as being revolting and disgusting in the extreme, and I was glad to descend from this melancholy height to Bombay.

(The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton)

Max ütles ...

plasma-jack said…

It's funny that while we wouldn't feed our close ones to pigs, vultures or dogs, we nevertheless have no problem feeding them to worms.

I agree. Cremation is the way to go... when you go.
Also better for the environment. Environmentalists classify most urban cemeteries as major toxic sites.
First, there is the concentration of natural pathogens from decaying human remains, then the lead, zinc, copper, and wood preservatives and varnishes from the caskets which eventually degrade.
In North America, the problem in old graveyards is exacerbated by the presence of arsenic, which was the main chemical used in embalming from the Civil War up till about 1910. The old arsenic from that period is still showing up in high concentrations in soil and various water sources down grade from old cemeteries.
Since the early 1900s, highly toxic formaldehyde has been the main embalming chemical.
All of the above-listed toxins degrade into the soil and are leached into the groundwater.
So major urban cemeteries, esp. in North America, are a major hazard.
There hasn't been much public discussion because it's a sensitive topic to many because of emotional and religious considerations, and because removing billions of tons of toxic landfill from urban centres would be unspeakably inconvenient and expensive.

Wahur ütles ...

And environmentalists could double up by helping out American endangered vulture populations?

Max ütles ...

Wahur ütles...
And environmentalists could double up by helping out American endangered vulture populations?


Yep... By training Cheney to eat 'em as well as shoot 'em in the face...

Giustino ütles ...

I have never visited any cemeteries with frequency. I have visited my grandfather's once -- on the day we buried him, and my other grandfather's twice.

One day I got adventurous and decided to visit my great-grandparents' graves in Queens. I had to call the cemetery beforehand to ask where it was located.

There were rows and rows and rows of headstones. It was hard to believe that of all random resting places, theirs was a plot in Queens.