Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Russian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Bolivian funeral traditions and Chilean funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Russians have some old superstitions when it comes to death and dying. One belief is that you can go to “the other world” in your sleep and wake up alive. They also believe that someone’s spirit can stay on Earth for up to 40 days. So some families leave out a towel and water cup for the spirit. Then on the 40th day, they shake out the towel at the cemetery to release the spirit.
But, generally, they believe that there are two types of death: good and bad death. A good death means you died naturally of old age. While a bad death means you died in an unnatural way from illness or violence. And they believe bad deaths can cause storms, drought, and other bad luck.
Preparation of the Body
When someone dies, their family covers the mirrors with black cloth and stops the clocks in their house. They also move the TV if it’s in the same room as the body. Afterward, they wash and dress the body in white clothes representing purity and a belt representing order and protection. They also leave out food offerings for the spirit.
Traditionally, the body stayed at home for three days for mourners to come pay respects. Sometimes, they put food, money, and mementos in the casket. But today, there’s usually a visitation before the funeral service.
Russian Funeral Service
Since Russian Orthodox Christianity is Russia’s most common religion, a Russian funeral usually follows these traditions. The casket is at the church for mourners to circle counterclockwise. They also may kiss or lay flowers on the deceased. However, mourners should give only an even number of flowers and wear black or dark formal clothes.
Burial and Graveside Service
After the funeral service, mourners go to the cemetery for the graveside service and burial. During the procession, mourners may throw sticks to block the path and confuse evil spirits trying to follow.
During the graveside service, mourners throw soil and coins onto the grave. The priest also may put a paper crown on the deceased’s head before burying the casket. After the burial, mourners throw away their handkerchiefs so tears don’t enter their home.
Russian Funeral Pancakes
After the burial, there is a funeral feast with traditional Russian funeral food to honor the deceased. One of the most common funeral foods is Russian funeral pancakes, also called Blini. These pancakes represent the start and end of someone’s life, as they’re served to moms at birth and at funerals. They’re also cheap and easy to make since it’s just flour, milk, yeast, and eggs.
Another popular funeral food is Koliva, a dome-shaped cake made of wheat and fruit. It’s also decorated with sweets and candles. Along with these signature dishes, there’s also black bread, fish pie, and vodka.
After the funeral, families host remembrance gatherings on the third, ninth, and 40th day after death. On the 40th day, they believe the spirit goes to heaven.
At these gatherings, loved ones pray, share stories, and eat traditional Russian food, like Koliva. They also acknowledge half-year and one-year grief anniversaries of their death by visiting the gravesite.