Death came frequently to both the old and young in Carpatho-Rus’. Medical care was whatever a family could do for themselves or with the help of neighbors.
Sometimes, when epidemics swept across the Carpathian Mountains, which they did regularly, the village priest would be overwhelmed with funereal responsibilities.
Cholera Arrives in Udol: 5 July 1873
The first cholera death recorded in 1873 was the burial of Anna Drabasin, wife of John Csanda on 5 July 1873. The summer cholera epidemic that year was brutal. 26 men, women and children were buried in a 20-day period between 5 July and 25 July 1873
Not that death was content with that. I’ve mentioned that the infant mortality rate was quite high in the 19th century. Three infants, aged one day, one day and 4 weeks old died of weakness and one 35 year old woman died of phthisis or tuberculosis.
Udol and Hajtovka, one mile away, share the village church. There were only about 750 souls living in the combined villages in the 1870s. 26 died in a 20 day period alone, but the epidemic raged for several months. Their ages ranged from 1 to 73 years old and two or three people commonly died each day.
That paints a pretty grim picture of village life, doesn’t it?
Aside from the epidemics, when the first consideration was to stem the effects of the continued spread of illness and bury the dead, I would imagine that the mourning times and funeral planning were cut short.
However, when the Grim Reaper was making his regular rounds, there were definite death and funeral customs that each Rusyn family followed.
I have to add here that Nana was a somewhat superstitious lady, which I thought was an anomaly for someone so religious. As I am learning more about Rusyn culture, I’ve come to believe some of those superstitions were deeply rooted in her Carpatho-Rusyn heritage. I pretty much ignored all the superstitious gobbledy gook when I was younger.
Now, I wish I had paid more attention to her beliefs, as some of the Rusyn superstitions are related to dying and death.
First, and this one makes me chuckle, there is the old saying to not to speak ill of the dead. This isn’t a singularly Rusyn belief – Romans wrote about it in Latin in ancient times. What I chuckled about is that this prohibition in Rusyn culture only lasted for 40 days!
It was wrong to say bad things about the recently deceased because of the effect it could have on the living. You see, the soul of the dead person was believed to remain nearby for an extended time after death. If inappropriate things were said about that person, harm might befall the person who said them or his family.
The same would be true if the soul didn’t feel that they were respectfully or appropriately treated during their last illness.
Therefore, comfort, care and respect were to be given to gravely ill people. If the dying man or woman had possessions he or she wanted to give away before they died, family members would come to visit, receive their (small) bequests and kiss them goodbye.
Crying in the presence of the dying person was considered rude, as it was felt that he/she should spend whatever remaining earthly time that was left to them in relative peace.
Deaths were announced to the villagers through the ringing of bells, three different bells to be exact. A small bell was rung for a child or young person who died, a medium sized bell was rung for a woman and a large bell was rung for a man who had died. It’s sad to say, but with the mortality rate of the times, the bell ringer was a busy person, having to ring the bells several times each month.
Of course, the first person to be notified of a death was the priest. The opportunity for confession and the administering of the last rites would certainly be given to any person nearing the time of death and the priest would prepare for the funeral, usually held on the third day after death.
After the person had died, friends and family members would begin crying. A wake was held, for a day or two, and the body was prepared for burial, which entailed being washed and dressed in best clothes. (An aside – Wakes were held for a specific purpose. Today, it is meant to be a time of visiting and to offer condolences. That happened in the past, too, but it was called a wake to make sure the dead person was really dead and not in a coma-like sleep. He/she might still be living and WAKE up.)
Visitors paying their respects came by to pray for the soul of the dead and to express their sorrow to the family.
The body was placed in a casket and when it was time for the funeral and burial, the casket was taken out feet first so that the dead would never again enter the house. There was much crying and ritual wailing by the women in the family, but there was also some merrymaking during the vigil beforehand. The dead person was never left alone during the vigil and, in fact, a bowl of water and towel was set on the window sill so he/she could cleanse himself/herself of any sins.
After the funeral, the coffin was taken to the town cemetery and lowered into the freshly dug grave. A wooden cross was then placed to mark the grave, but epitaphs on stones as we are used to seeing, were non-existent. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that Rusyn graves were marked with gravestones and identifying information. There was no real attempt to maintain the graves of those who passed either.
For a very detailed explanation of Rusyn funeral customs, read Folk Customs of the Carpatho-Rusyns: The Funeral.