The act of burial and the traditions surrounding death are an important part of slavic culture. The ceremonies that were connected to it were performed with a lot of attention to detail, because they were important for the further journey of one’s soul.
It was also a way to show your love and respect to the deceased family member, a friend, or an important public figure.
In the ancient times, fire played a big role in the religious life of slavic people and often was a part of many rituals, and burial was not an exception. It is known, that usually the bodies were cremated. It was believed that a big fire can help the soul to reach the kingdom of the dead. The wood for the fire was stacked to create a rectangular border, generally people used birch or oak. The choice of wood was not accidental – birch was considered a holy tree and oak was a tree of the god Perun. The space inside this rectangle was filled with straw or thin branches. Bodies were burned on a stack of wood or in a wooden boat.
The boat was present in many ceremonies, because the soul needed to cross the river Smorodina on it’s way to the afterlife. Often people were cremated with several items that were important for the deceased. For example a warrior was sent on his way to the other realm with his weapons, a craftsman with his tools. After the fire went out, the remaining ash was carefully collected and placed in a ceramic urn, that was later put in a special burial mound.
It is highly likely, that the idea of creating those mounds corresponded to the slavic perception of the structure of the universe. The earth of the mound was considered to be the middle plane, inhabited by humans. Thus the sky above was seen as the higher plane of the gods, and the space underground – the plane of the dead. Those mounds were located in a special place outside of the settlement, it was referred to as the City of The Dead or the Valley of The Dead. The act of burial was accompanied by Trisna – a ritual event when people ate, drank and played combat games.
Sometimes the ceramic urn was placed in a specially constructed wooden house that stood on a thick pole. Later on, when the traditions changed and bodies were placed underground, the little houses on the poles were installed in the cemeteries. And even later, when orthodox crosses replaced the poles, some had wooden roofs at the very top of them. This peculiar tradition was associated with the idea of creating a comfortable environment for the dead in the afterlife. It is highly likely, that those houses had only three walls instead of four, so people could leave offerings like food for their deceased inside of them. Unfortunately, many of this structures didn’t survive to our day and little is known about them.
At the time, cremation was not the only way to bury the dead. Another tradition involved inhumation. The body was laid in the ground in the position of an embryo, which refers to the act of birth.
Later on, another ideas about the journey of the soul appeared. Slavic people believed that the soul goes directly to the sky and becomes one with the celestial forces, that can rule the weather. The body was burned and buried, so the ancestor also connects to the earth. This was done in order to make sure that they will protect the family land and make it more fertile.
With the gradual spread of the christianity and it’s beliefs, new orthodox rituals started replacing the old pagan ones. But despite the fact that some practices were forbidden by the new religion, many of them were still performed in small villages for many years to come. And, truth be told, some parts of the ancient traditions concerning death and burial are still present in modern days.