Polish Death and Burial Customs Posted by Anna on Apr 15, 2010 in Culture, Vocabulary
In today’s post, Adam gives us a very detailed look at the customs and traditions of this most difficult time in the lives of those who lost a loved one.
Death is unfortunately an unavoidable, if a rather displeasing event. It affects every human being around the world, in every place and every culture. And there are as many attitudes towards it as there are cultures. There are also just as many customs.
This post will try to explain the most typical funeral customs and observances. In most cases, funeral ceremonies in Poland will be heavily influenced by the Polish Roman-Catholic ways, even if the deceased wasn’t religious, or was an atheist. Things do change, however, and now some people fit ceremonies to themselves, rather than themselves to traditional ceremonies.
The traditional way of dealing with death in Poland is to mourn and be sad. To keep calm and carry on, to keep smiling, remembering just the happy days and sharing funny stories about the deceased is a rare thing in this country.
Death must be pronounced in Poland by a doctor, and body (ciało, noun, neuter) will typically remain in the place where death occurred for some time, up to two hours. Then it will be transported to a morgue (kostnica, noun, fem.). A Certificate of Death (akt zgonu, noun, masc.) is an official document issued by a local government official (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego), absolutely necessary for completing all bureaucratic procedures, and it also states the cause of death (przyczyna śmierci). In situations when someone’s body is not recovered following a tragedy of a ship (statek morski) or an aircraft (statek powietrzny, formal) and when it is known that the person in question was on board, he or she will be pronounced dead by a court decision after six months. In situations when someone is missing, they may be pronounced dead after ten years.
Funeral home (zakład pogrzebowy), will deal with most things related to the funeral and body on behalf of the family – in most urban areas. In some villages there is no custom, nor need, to engage a funeral home. Most expenses are covered by the state, with a special benefit (zasiłek pogrzebowy) paid by Zakład Ubezpieczeń Społecznych, a state insurer, where every employed Pole should hold an obligatory insurance, which pays pensions and benefits.
Relatives and friends are notified of the death and details of the funeral (pogrzeb, noun, masc.). Special death notices called klepsydra (noun, fem.) are often put on the deceased house and their local church, and printed in newspapers. When it contains the following sentence: Prosimy o nieskładanie kondolencji, the family indicates that it is their wish not to receive condolences.
Family and friends, in urban areas, are expected to attend the funeral in a car or taxi, while a coach is often provided for neighbors and relatives from further.
These days some people choose to have their relatives cremated (skremować, verb, perfective aspect). Cremation (kremacja, noun, fem.) is not as popular as burial (pochowanie) of the whole body. At present it is still illegal to scatter the ashes (prochy, noun. plural).
In some traditional rural areas there are three “stops” in a funeral ceremony (ceremonia pogrzebowa, pogrzeb). The first stop is a wake (czuwanie). The body lies at state in the house of the deceased or their relatives. Family, neighbors and friends gather and pray during the day and night for around three days. Then the coffin is carried in a procession (usually by foot) to the church, where a remembrance service takes place. And then the body is carried yet in another procession to the cemetery.
In urban areas there are usually two, or just one “stop”. The body, brought by a hearse from the morgue, may be taken to a church, a religious chapel on a cemetery belonging to a particular denomination, or a secular chapel at a communal cemetery. Once there, a special remembrance service would be held. Then everyone drives to the cemetery, or go outside the cemetery chapel. During the procession through the cemetery, the coffin is either carried by pallbearers, or driven in a hearse, before those gathered for the burial. Sometimes only the last “stop” takes place.
Once at the cemetery, rural and urban customs are similar. Religious duties are carried out (or a speech by a secular speaker conducting the burial), the coffin is then lowered into the grave. Each mourner throws a handful of soil onto the coffin. Then shovels of soil are thrown, to level the terrain and form a grave. A cross with a name plate or just a name plate is placed at the top. After a moment, wreaths and flowers are placed on the grave.
After the funeral, some people organize a post-funeral get-together (stypa, noun, fem.). This might be either at someone’s home, or at a function hall. Typically there would be a meal, possibly speeches, lots of small talk and maybe some anecdotes about the deceased.
People over the age of 18 demonstrate their mourning by wearing black attire. Children may do the same, however it isn’t expected. For children, sometimes only a black ribbon is pinned to their clothing.
Some people, however, choose not to follow these customs. Especially those who perceive death as a personal tragedy and would prefer not to put their loved ones to their final rest, and mourn, while being observed by other people.