Preparations for the Funeral


The Preparation of the Body of the Deceased and Ceremonies at Home

Funerals mark the end of life and the passage of the individual into the afterlife where he or she joins generations of ancestors. All people prepare for death and everyone over 50 has a funeral bundle containing clothes for burial, cloth to line the coffin, candles for the funeral service, a cross to place in the hands of the deceased, and the prokhidna, a paper bought in church. Rushnyky or ritual towels and kerchiefs to give as gifts to those who help with the funeral may also be included. Women prepare these bundles for themselves and their husbands and widowed brothers.

Once a person has died, he or she is washed by post- menopausal women who are friends and neighbors; relatives should not touch the deceased. The body is laid out in the icon corner with the head toward the icons and the feet toward the door. The deceased must spend at least one night in the home. Three nights is considered desirable, but this is often impractical. While the body lies in state, someone reads the Psalter. Ideally, this should be the deacon, but in most cases it is one of the women who washed the body. These women also keep vigil through the night.

The funeral normally takes place in the afternoon. The morning is used to prepare for the wake and the afternoon hour insures that everyone will leave the cemetery before dark. The funeral begins with a service in the home. During the service, the candles from the funeral bundle are lit and held for a while by the relatives, who then pass them back to the others present. When the candles burn down, the stubs are placed in the coffin to light the way to the other world for the deceased.

After the service, the relatives say goodbye to the deceased and the coffin is removed from the home. As the coffin is taken out the door, it is either lowered three times or tapped three times against the doorjamb so that the deceased can part with his home.


The Funeral Procession

The funeral is characterized by a procession through the village streets. Normally, a person carrying an icon draped with a rushnyk walks in front. That person is male if the deceased is male and female if the deceased is a woman. After the icon come women bearing funeral wreaths. They are followed by men carrying the coffin. Women may carry the coffin if the deceased is female. After the coffin comes the lid, then the priest and the closest relatives, then other relatives and friends. Anyone can join the funeral procession as it goes down the street and many people do. These days, if the home of the deceased is far from the cemetery, part of the journey is made by truck. The coffin is placed atop a flatbed truck and taken to within a relatively short distance from the cemetery. The procession is so important, that the final portion of the trip to the cemetery is always done on foot.

The funeral process must stop at all crossroads. When the procession stops, the coffin is set down. Members of the church choir, the pivcha, sing the Lord’s Prayer, and family members lament. There must be a minimum of three stops along the way and if the procession does not pass three crossroads, then a stop not at the crossroads is made. Lamentation is an interesting phenomenon. It requires singing in verse and it is an art form that is still preserved in Ukraine. Many people know how to lament and some can do so for an hour or more.


At the Cemetery

When the procession reaches the cemetery, another service is held. Sometimes, if the family can afford it, a church service is conducted, as we witnessed in Ploske, Nosiv region, Chernihiv province in 2000. Many cemeteries are adjacent to a church and the coffin is brought inside for a service before being taken to graveside. At the graveside, relatives say goodbye to the deceased and lament for the last time. The coffin is lowered, often on special ritual towels kept for this purpose (photo). The priest “seals” the grave by making cuts in the shape of a cross on the grave opening. Each of the relatives throws in three handfuls of dirt and the grave is covered over and decorated with flowers.

We returned to Ploske in August 2013 and were very happy to see the same priest is in the church. He remembered us and asked us to take his picture.


The Wake

From the cemetery, people head to the home of the deceased for the wake. Upon entering the farmstead, each must wash his or her hands three times. When the meal begins, each person must first eat from a special funeral dish called kolivo or kanun. This is usually a thin whole grain porridge with honey. In recent time, the porridge has been replaced with cookies soaked in water and sweetened with honey. At the end of the meal, kysyl, a thin fruit pudding, is served and the members of the choir, along with the priest, sing special funeral songs called psalmy.



On the morning of the day after the funeral, the family visits the grave and brings the deceased “breakfast,” a drink of horilka and bread or samples of the foods served at the wake. The deceased is commemorated again on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day after death. A big commemorative meal is held on the 40th day, when the soul is believed to have reached heaven. Another big commemoration takes place after one year. At this point the deceased is seen as one of the ancestors and is commemorated on ancestor holidays which are part of the calendar year.

We visited the cemetery in Iavorivka again in August 2013