July 19, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Russian Funeral Traditions

Superstitions, deathiversaries and the Christian Orthodox influence

Russian Funeral Traditions
Burning candles on the background of icons in the Orthodox Church in Russia. (Shutterstock)

There are over two million Russians living in the United States today. People with Russian heritage are your friends, neighbors and colleagues. If this is the case, you may already know about their long-held, rich cultural traditions. Russians have unique rituals surrounding death and mourning that help mourners process the loss, and help pay tribute to the life of the deceased person. In this cultural funeral spotlight, we are exploring the fascinating funeral customs of Russian people.


How Russians pay tribute to lost loved ones


While the exact nature of a funeral depends on the life and wishes of the deceased, there are a few standard Russian funeral traditions. The image of a "traditional" funeral in the United States likely conjures up images of a Christian funeral. 


Russia. Ryazan region. Sreznevo. 07.12.2015 The church candles. The unidentified praying old woman in a wheelchair near the window, two women background in the Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral. (Shutterstock)


In Russia, Orthodox Christianity is the most dominant religion, so the traditional funeral reflects those values. This can be quite different from American Christian funerals. While funerals in the United States are typically held a few days after the death, feature the sharing of memories and bible verses and a repast afterwards, Russian funerals have their own set of traditions.


Post-death superstitions


Many Russian families believe in superstitions regarding death. They believe that sleeping is a gateway to the afterlife, and that repose can unite the living with the dead. When a person dies, their soul may linger on earth for up to 40 days. They also believe that there are good deaths and bad deaths. A good death comes at the end of a person's life, and is planned by God. A bad death occurs when someone departs the earth "before their time," like when a sudden accident claims a life. Depending on the manner of death, the deceased person's ascendence to heaven could be delayed.


When a death occurs, the family will grieve for three days in the family home. During this time, they will cover every mirror with a black cloth, and stop all the clocks in the house as well. These traditions are thought to help the spirit of the deceased person pass easily into the afterlife. Some also believe the first person to see themself in a mirror after a death has occurred will be the next to die.


Care of the body


Following the death, the family will bathe the body and dress it in white clothes to signify purity of the soul. The burial garb will include a belt for protection of the body and soul within. These belts are considered essential for when the resurrection of the dead begins, per Christian belief. Food offerings may also be left out for the spirit of the deceased.


The body is left for three days while mourners visit the family home to pay their respects. They may place items in the casket, including personal effects and money. 


Open casket viewing ceremony


An open casket funeral is more common at Russian funerals than it is in the west. During these visitation services, guests will typically surround the casket and circle the deceased's body in a counterclockwise direction. Flowers are laid next to the body, and loved ones may lean down to kiss the body. 


It's expected that all guests wear dark, formal funeral attire. It is also customary for everyone to only bring an even number of flowers at a funeral. All Russian celebrations, like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, call for odd numbers of flowers, as this signifies happy occasions. Even numbers are only for sad occasions, so bringing an odd number of flowers to a funeral would be an insult to the deceased and the family. 


Procession and burial


It's not uncommon for Russian funeral guests to throw sticks behind them, blocking the path to the gravesite from evil spirits as they make their ways to the cemetery. 


During the burial, they throw both dirt and coins onto the casket before it's covered with dirt. In some cases, the priest officiating the ceremony may even place a crown made of paper on the head of the deceased. Russians also have a tradition of pouring a small amount of alcohol (usually vodka) over the grave of a departed loved one. This ritual, known as "pouring one out" is an ancient one that spans across many cultures and is not specific just to Russia. 


All of these rituals are to ensure the safe and comfortable passage of the deceased person's soul from this world to the next. The supplies of money, food and mementos is meant to assist them in their spiritual transition during the 40-day period between the death and ascendence to heaven.


Repast and reception


The meal after the funeral is known as the pominki. This is the chance for family and friends to reminisce and mourn together over food and drink. The traditional funeral food is Russian funeral pancakes called Blini. Special cakes made of wheat and fruit, called Kolyva, are usually blessed and then served to guests.


Deathiveraries


Deathiversaries are unavoidable reminders of our dead loved ones year after year across all cultures. But according to Russian superstition, families believe that the spirit of a deceased person remains on earth for 40 days before it ascends to heaven. Therefore, families of the deceased will hold gatherings in their home to on the third, ninth and fortieth day anniversaries of the death to celebrate their life. 


This continuing grief is a unique way of acknowledging that the pain of losing someone does not end after the funeral service. Gathering more than once to meet grief in a collective mourning environment helps families process the loss together, and ensure their departed loved one successfully transitions to the afterlife. 


The takeaway


Russian funeral traditions serve the same purpose as any funeral: to mourn the loss of a loved one and celebrate their life. Many Russians hold superstitions, especially during times of mourning, and these beliefs inform many of their funeral traditions. If you know someone who is Russian and has recently passed away, this guide to Russian funerals will hopefully give you a better idea of what to expect, as well as provide you with greater confidence as you navigate the funeral events.

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