7 Weird Polish Funeral Customs
small, 7 Weird Polish Funeral Customs, The dead in special dress called Śmiertelnica. Still from The Issa Valley by Tadeusz Konwicki. Photo: "Zebra" Film Studio / The National Film Archive , The dead in special dress called Śmiertelnica. Still from The Issa Valley by Tadeusz Konwicki. Photo: "Zebra" Film Studio / The National Film Archive / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Cultural customs characterising a nation or an ethnic group depend on many factors, including geopolitics, society's stage of development, dominant religion and its connections with minor beliefs, and ethnic environment. Emigration and the national composition of settlements should also be taken into account. When it comes to Poland, lots of customs are a unique mixture of Slavic, Jewish and Catholic beliefs.
Back in time
Polish funerary customs obviously didn’t start at a specific moment in history, because celebrating death is part of the history of mankind and is as old as civilization itself.The contemporary rituals on Polish territory were sublimated from many previous traditions. At first, Slavic customs were most common, which with the passing of time were adjusted to fit in with the Catholic Church. The most famous ceremony among funeral celebrations was Pompa Funebris.
Pompa Funebris was a grand and expensive funeral ceremony for the Polish nobility. The event was practised mostly in the 16th and 17th century when the nobility had the main role in Polish society.
Pompa Funebris had its own schedule and rules to be obeyed. In a nutshell, it consisted of a sumptuous dinner and adoration of the dead by building a special catafalque called castrum doloris (castle of sadness). The funeral customs of the lower classes of society were much more modest, but this doesn’t mean that villagers didn’t appropriately celebrate funerals. Outside of the richest manor houses, a whole range of other customs burgeoned, even though some of them were strictly prohibited by the Catholic Church.
Rich nobility and poor villagers all abided by common superstitions about death. The deceased was perceived as a liminal entity till the burial – corpses didn’t belong to world of the living yet neither to that of the dead. That’s why the body couldn’t come into contact with anything that is about to produce new life – pregnant women shouldn’t touch it, nor should the water used to clean the dead be disposed of on fertile ground. Deep in the suspicious medieval era, superstition frequently led families to hammer steel nails into the skulls of the dead to prevent them from turning into vampires.
The process of mourning was as important as other rituals like marriage or baptism. The first nights, spent praying and guarding the deceased's body, the so-called Nights of Emptiness, were crucial. In the majority of villages it took 3 days. In the case of the nobility, it could even be prolonged to a few weeks and a special group of mourning women was hired to mourn instead of the nobles themselves.
Oddities of the present
The amount of superstitions, beliefs and customs in Poland of old is overwhelming and they vary from region to region, from city to city, and from village to village. Some of them have survived to the present and are still practised. These have been portrayed by Berenika Kowalska, a young visual artist who tries to find traditional Polish customs in modernity and capture them on paper.
1. Ringing the bell
The Loretan Bell, also known as the Bell of Santa Barbara, gained popularity in the 16th century due to the pilgrims who brought small bells from the holy city of Loreto in Italy as souvenirs. Bigger versions of the Loretan Bell are still preserved in various places for protection from thunderstorms. Ringing the bell is a symbolic announcement of death and it should scare demons and evil spirits away from the soul of the dead.
2. Putting the seats upside down
This custom came from a Jewish tradition which was brought to Polish lands. According to the tradition, the soul of the deceased wants to stay on earth for as long as possible, so unturned seats make it difficult for it to leave the body.
3. Covering the mirrors
This one is also of Jewish origins. It is obligatory to cover the mirrors in the surroundings of the body of the deceased. If not, his or her soul could stay in the mirror, haunting the living as a scary reflection.
The traditional way of announcing the death of your beloved to community is an obituary. This custom, present almost all over the world, takes on a surprising form in Poland. On the door of the house besides the announcement you can see small crosses, images of saints, black bows, branches of birch and pieces of gold jewellery.
5. Stopping the clocks
Just at the moment of the dying's last breath, the clocks nearby should be stopped. There are two explanations for this custom. First, to say to the living world that time is over for the dead. Second, to stop the clocks getting confused and counting down to the time of death of the family members present.
6. Putting a candle in the deceased's hand
A gromnica is a special candle used in catholic ceremonies which appeared around the 12th century. Since then, it has accompanied people through their entirely earthly lives. It is first used during the baptism ceremony, then the first communion, confirmation, marriage and, finally, death. The family put the candle into a dying person’s hand to facilitate the soul's path to the afterlife.
7. The gown of dead
Just before entombment or burial, the body of the deceased should be dressed in gown of the dead, with beautiful Polish name – śmiertelnica. Back in the medieval era the gown was made of thick, white linen. Presently, śmiertelnica are being replaced in cities by elegant, modest dresses and suits.
Sources: Bogucka M., Staropolskie obyczaje w XVI-XVII w., PIW, Warszawa 1994; Kuchowicz Z., Obyczaje staropolskie, Wydawnictwo Łódzkie, Łódź 1975; Decyk J., Ludzki i boży wymiar śmierci w świetle kultu zmarłych, Warszawa 2000, written by D.S., 28.09.2015.