I remember as my grandmother started preparing clothes for her funeral. “Here are my burial clothes,” she said, and carefully, with a barely noticeable smile, folded a brown dress, smoothed out its wrinkles, put it into a special wrapping and hid it away in a shelf especially chosen for these garments – the shelf of death.
Vital Voranau talks about traditions of rural Belarus, and one of the most important of them, – Radunica, a spring feast of the memory of the departed.
It is celebrated a week after Easter, always on Tuesday. Before this day, Belarusians clean their family tombs and when the holiday comes they gather at cemeteries with their families in order to have common dinner.
My grandmother showed this treasure to all of her daughters. In case they forgot, my grandmother also notified the neighborhood ladies – unlike her daughters, they would not forget, it’s a different generation.
When talking about her ‘burial gown” my grandmother was very calm. It bothered the younger relatives; to them, it was awful to talk about being dead and burial clothing.
Although both Catholic and Orthodox churches included this pre-Christian holiday in their calendars, the custom in its original form survived more in the Orthodox parts of Belarus.
Neither of the churches supports the pagan element of it, which is symbolic sharing of food with the ancestors.
People leave Easter eggs on the graves of their family members and sometimes also have a common drink with the dead, by pouring vodka on the soil where they are buried.
In the village there was not one funeral without my presence. My grandmother dragged me to all burials. In the front yard there would be people, bunches of people. We passed them and entered the house. In the house there was always a mixture of the same smells: flowers, tears, warm wax, human sweat and dead body. I couldn’t stand it, and with any opportunity went outside right away. I joined people, bunches of people.
Then the coffin with the dead was carried out and set in the front yard. The smell did not follow. People, bunches of people stepped to the cemetery in a long flock. My grandmother repeated: “One should be afraid only of the living, the dead are not to be feared.” Grandma taught me not to be afraid of death.
Some families even build special tables and benches on the burial ground, others lay tables directly on the graves.
The holiday is also known in some parts of neighbor countries, but only in Belarus, it is an official celebration of since 1993.
My grandmother still lived for many years. She died abroad, far from her home. In order to be taken back and buried in her cemetery plot, as she wished for her final resting place, her body needed to be cremated.
Neither her daughters nor the neighborhood ladies knew what to do with my grandmother’s clothes. I proposed that the urn with her ashes be put into a coffin and below it set her burial dress, shoes, and the fastening sash.
On the day of the funeral, there was a very intense sun. It was a summer day and a calm day. Calm as my grandmother’s face when she quietly and peacefully put her clothes in order and set them out on the shelf for her final journey.
Text by Vital Voranau.
Photos, taken in 2006, courtesy of Marek Lapis, born September 29, 1968 in Kłecek, is a Polish artist photographer. Marek Lapis is a member of the District of the Wielkopolska Union of Polish Art Photographers. Photographer of the Polish Photographers Agency Forum.