Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Romanian Funeral

I recently went to a funeral in Romania. Unfortunately it was the funeral of a dear friend's father, but I was thankful that I could be there to support her and just help out where needed. It was a completely foreign experience for me (no pun intended), and so I wanted to write about it in some detail. I'm fascinated by the fact that customs for funerals, cemeteries, and the rituals/rites surrounding death have developed so differently the world over. I mean, really and truly a huge spectrum. I've only been to funerals in America and Romania, but even just seeing cemeteries across Europe, Mexico, and Israel, and the little I've read over the years about different rituals for the dead has always intrigued me. In any event, here is a little first-person recap of my experience at a Romanian funeral.

But first a little disclaimer: This was Protestant funeral. Which is not "typical" of Romania, given that 90%+ of Romanians are Orthodox. It is my understanding that some things are similar, but some things are very different. Like the fact that we don't so much believe you need to send the dead person with food for the "journey." Just for context, and just so I don't have any Romanian readers getting all upset about how inaccurate a description I give.

The funeral services occur over three days. The two nights prior to the main funeral service there are evening services for 2-3 hours that basically consist of multiple sermons intermixed with songs. I went to one of these and basically it just made my brain hurt because I don't know enough Romanian, and straining to understand for 3 hours, well, it makes one's brain hurt. I asked several Romanians what the word for this service is, but none knew an English equivalent, and I never could catch it in Romanian to try to translate it myself.

The church the family attends is a Brethren church, which doesn't necessarily matter, except to say that it's quite traditional and conservative. Like most Protestant Romanian churches (the Eclesia Union of Iasi being a glaring exception because *shocker* we clap our hands, dance, and wear jewelry) men and women sit on opposite sides of the center aisle. All the women wear skirts. No women wear jewelry (except maybe a wedding ring). All the women cover the heads. The latter is based on a single verse in the Bible that says women should cover their head in church. While I disagree that this was meant to be for all churches and all times (context people, context!), I think it highlights the tendency towards legalism in many of the Romanian Protestant churches. The idea is that if you have a lot of rules, you can make sure you're living properly. When in fact Christ came to abolish the Law and to give freedom. But that's for another blog entirely. The point is, it was a conservative place. And I was the hussy in black wide-leg dress pants with no head covering. Wearing a necklace.

Moving on to the funeral itself.

I arrive with some friends around 10:50am, the funeral is set to start at 11. We enter from the back into the small church that has maybe 20 rows, split down the middle, men on the right, women on the left, 8 people to a row (per side). Easily 125 people are already there. The coffin is at the front of the church, open, and the family is sitting in 3 pews at the front left that are perpendicular to those of the congregation. With 10 children in the family, 4 of whom are engaged or married, plus some of the 10+ siblings of the deceased, it is a sizable group. By the time the funeral starts the church is absolutely full, including a small balcony that holds about 50 people.

As the service begins a 12-person brass band enters playing a funeral dirge. We're talking trumpets, tuba, french horn, trombones, and a big bass drum. In a small church that has no soft surfaces to absorb sound. They sit in the 3 rows of pews at the front right that are perpendicular to the congregation and directly across from the family. Three teenagers come up front- niece and nephews of the deceased- one with an accordion, and they sing a traditional Romanian song (hymn?). One of the pastors gives a 30 minute sermon. I forget the exact order of things now, as it's all a big muddle of Romanian in my mind, but essentially it is 2.5 hours of rotating through Sermon (each one by a different person), Brass Band, Nephews Singing. Repeat. While it is hard for me to try to focus on understanding all the Romanian, I think the more challenging part is listening to the brass band. Again and again. They are really painfully bad. Maybe I'm just not a brass band kind of gal, maybe it's the whole 'funeral dirge' thing, and maybe it's the acoustics, but I also think they are just not good.

I am struck that it is not until 2 hours into the service that anything is mentioned about the deceased. Later on I ask some friends if this was actually the case, or if in my poor knowledge of Romanian I missed it. Nope, I was right. Only in one sermon does the pastor talk about the life of the deceased and the impact he had during his life. This is entirely strange to me, as the majority of time at American funerals is spent celebrating the life of the person. Apparently the family had to fight to even have ANYTHING said about him, as funerals just traditionally don't include that. The photo slideshow they wanted to show? Not allowed. I still can't get an explanation from anyone about why it is this way, but I have one or two hypotheses. Not important though.

I am also struck by the length. It's just so so so long compared to what I know. I'm finally getting used to 1.5-2 hour Sunday church services, but man, this is a lot. It's not helped by the fact that it's now 1:30 and my stomach is eager to be filled. Naively I think it's nearly over after we all get up to walk out of the church behind the coffin and family.. Oh how wrong I am.

As we're all gathered outside the church there is a bunch of hustle and bustle, and I basically have no idea what is going on, so I just stand in one place waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Usually a good course of action. This happens fairly quickly, as my friend Roxana comes and tells me we need to help carry one of the wreaths. Ok.... carry them WHERE exactly? On a long walk, it turns out.

I think kind of like how in America people send flowers to the family of the deceased, here they send wreaths. Not exactly a wreath, but a teardrop-shaped frame with greens (fake or real) on it, flowers (fake or real), and a ribbon that says some kind of message. I understand that usually only a few are sent (maybe the closer friends?), but in this case there are a lot, more than usual based on some of the comments I heard. Here is a picture of some of them:

So we join the procession which is as follows: all the wreath-carriers in single file, then the brass band, then the hearse with the back open, casket inside and open, then the family, then anyone who wants to walk, and finally cars. What do we do? We walk to the cemetery. Which- silly me- I think is probably close by. Wrong. It's a 40 minute walk, slowly, slowly, slowly creeping along the streets. We are at the back of the wreath-carriers, thereby increasing our enjoyment of the brass band. It's maaaaybe 20 degrees, and I forgot my gloves at home. Which would be fine if I weren't carrying a wreath. I try really hard to have a good attitude, but it's challenging.

When I can see the cemetery just a few hundred meters away, we stop. Why, you ask, do we stop? For another sermon, which I gather is actually a recitation of a poem. I learn after the fact that the building in front of which we stopped was where he worked. I'm not sure if this is standard, but it's what we did. While we are stopped, I try to get a picture of the procession, but I want to be discreet (despite the fact that the ENTIRE thing is being videotaped, which is strange to me). Consequently, none of them turned out so well. Here is the best of the bunch, mainly with the brass band.

We proceed on to the cemetery and back back back into it. The ground is covered in snow, and there's not so much a cleared path, or "walkways" in between the rows of tombs. I really don't want to think about how many graves I am stepping on. At the grave there is another 20 minute sermon. This one begins with the pastor saying, "There is ONE word that you need to know today: alkwaerluy" Or at least it could be alkwaerluy, because I have no clue what the word means. Thankfully I'm near a friend, and I ask him what it means. Faith. Only, not the normal word (which I know), but more of an old-school word, apparently. With this new knowledge, I am well-equipped to understand this (hopefully last?!) sermon.

As we creep up on the four hour mark, I sense things are coming to a close. The brass band plays one last song, during which I assume they are lowering the casket into the ground. I am far enough back that I can't see the grave. Later, I learn what actually happened. The casket was actually still open at that point, and while the last song played, the family members walked by, each paying their last respects and leaving. Only after all the people left did the graveyard workers (Is there a better term?) close the casket and lower it down. Definitely different than we do it, and an interesting variation to be sure.

From this point we leave the cemetery and go to our respective cars. Family and out-of-town guests are invited to a meal afterwards. I go home with some friends of mine who live in this city, have "lunch" (at 3:30) with them, and then go back to spend time with the family that evening.

It's a day I will not soon forget. While different and challenging in many respects, it is unquestionably an experience for which I am thankful, not only for all that I learned culturally, but also because I was able to support a dear friend.  


Ioana said...

Sunday service usually lasts over 4 hours and it can get really tedious trust me!

Joe B said...

I am a random guy from Indiana, USA. I will travel to Romania in September (2010) to meet some univ students I helped to meet Jesus via Internet. I know no romanians except for these young converts. I think you know people I want to introduce these kids to, and I think maybe Bebe Bacui (the way house, eclesia?) is who I want to find. Can you help me?

Love and peace, Spangles!

Anonymous said...

That is a pretty accurate description of a Protestant funeral...You should get used to long services in Romanian churches. However - they do seem to get slightly shorter (more Westernized?) as time goes by...
FANFARA - the brass band - is an expected presence in most Romanian funerals...Quality varies, as you have noticed!

johnnycee said...

Wow, thanks, Interesting.
Recently attended a Romanian Orthodox Funeral Service, at the cemetery chapel. Not long. But what I found interesting was at the close a beautiful gift of packaged food was distributed to each congregant.
Complete with wine, juice, water, bread, fruit, meat,
side dish, even a beautiful dinner plate, large tumbler, fork and knife, beautiful towel, all nicely wrapped up and in a designer nice bag.
Was raised in the Greek Orthodox Tradition and never saw anything like this. In addition we were treated to a sumptuous meal at a fine restaurant.
Similar food gifts were distributed by the family again at the 40 day memorial service following the Sunday Three Hour Liturgy at church. Of course I'm use to this kind of thing having been raised in the Orthodox Tradition.
However I much prefer the non denominational services in the American Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches. Much more lively and enjoyable, and just plain fun.
I Cr 13:8a, Love never fails !! (NKJV)