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From Mourning to Memory - The Unique Death Customs of Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Updated: Aug 10, 2023


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As Ukraine struggles with the aftermath of the ongoing conflict, it is evident that the country’s collective heritage is being deeply affected. Amidst this difficult situation, it is crucial to highlight the rich traditions and folklore surrounding death in Ukrainian Culture that contributes to its sense of solidarity and national identity. These customs and stories serve as a tribute to the cultural legacy and offer a glimmer of hope amidst the turmoil.


Folklore is a remarkable aspect of Ukrainian funeral customs.


There are many beliefs and superstitions surrounding the unique death customs of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. In the afterlife, for example, it is customary to place a glass of water or a dish of salt next to the deceased’s body, as it is believed that these items will prevent the soul from becoming lost or confused on its journey to the afterlife. Another tradition involves the placing of coins on the eyes or in the hands with the belief that these coins will help the soul to pay its way across the River Styx, a mythical boundary between the living world and the afterlife. Additionally, it is common to place candles around the body to light the way for the soul and to provide warmth and comfort during its journey. In many Ukrainian villages, people toll the church bells to announce a death, and for neighbors to come together to prepare a communal meal for the grieving family. This meal, known as a “repast”, is an opportunity for mourners to gather, share stories and memories of the deceased, and offer support to one another during a difficult time.


Music as a Requiem


The role of music in Ukrainian funerals is also powerful, with traditional funeral songs and hymns being sung by mourners. Traditional Ukrainian music is characterized by its haunting melodies, intricate harmonies, and use of instruments like the bandura (a type of lute), the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer), and the tsymbaly (a type of hammered dulcimer). Its roots can be traced back to times when pagan rituals were prevalent. These rituals included singing and chanting to appease the spirits of the dead and ensure their safe passage. With the advent of Christianity in Ukraine, it took on a more religious tone, incorporating hymns and chants from the Orthodox Church. Today, the music blends a wide range of styles and genres, from classical music to folk songs, and from religious hymns isto modern ballads. One of the most common types is the requiem, a musical composition that is typically solemn and mournful, featuring slow tempos, minor keys, and somber melodies. Myroslav Skoryk’s “Requiem” and Valentyn Silvestrov’s “Requiem for Larissa” are two of the most well-known Ukrainian requiems. In addition to requiems, hymns and chants from the Orthodox Church are also frequently sung at Ukrainian funerals. These include “Blessed is the Man” and “Memory Eternal”, which are sung during the funeral service and the burial ceremony, respectively. These hymns are typically performed by choirs or small groups of singers, and their haunting melodies and reverent lyrics create a powerful and emotional atmosphere. Folk songs are another important aspect of Ukrainian funeral music.


Food as a symbol of the cycle of Life and Death


One of the most important funeral dishes in Ukrainian cuisine is kutia. Kutia is a sweet grain pudding made from boiled wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and raisins. It is often served as the first dish at the funeral meal, symbolizing the cycle of life and death. The wheat berries represent the cycle of life, while the poppy seeds symbolize the hope of new life after death. The honey represents the sweetness of life, and the raisins - the tears of mourning. It can help to alleviate stress and anxiety. The death of a loved one is an incredibly difficult and emotional experience, and people often turn to food as a way to cope with their feelings. Sweet foods, in particular, are known to have a calming effect on the body and can help to reduce feelings of sadness and grief. Paska is also a sweet, egg-based bread that is often baked for Easte but is also commonly served at funerals. It is a symbol of the resurrection and new life after death. Paska is typically decorated with religious symbols, such as a cross or the initials of the deceased. Family and friends often come together to prepare the funeral meal, with each person contributing a dish or ingredient. In some cases, the family may even hire a professional cook to prepare the funeral meal, ensuring that everything is perfectly cooked and presented. The funeral meal is typically served in the family home or a nearby community hall, and is open to all mourners and guests.


Despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, its people continue to hold on to their cultural traditions, which have been passed down from generation to generation. These customs are a source of comfort and solidarity during times of grief and serve as a reminder of the resilience of the Ukrainian people. By continuing to practice these traditions and preserve their cultural heritage, Ukrainians are ensuring that their unique identity and sense of community will endure for generations to come.


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