Romani Customs and Traditions:
Death Rituals and Customs
There are many superstitious omens of death, the
most common of which is the cry of the owl. A more certain sign of death
is serious illness. When Roma feel that one of their group is about to
die, word is urgently sent to all relatives, no matter how far away they
might be. Through fixed contact points called vurma, Roma are able
to find one another in time of need, even without fixed addresses. When
an emergency arises, relatives and friends are contacted, especially in
the case of death. All relatives who can possibly do so appear at the bedside
of the person who is reaching the end of his life. It is necessary to show
family solidarity, and to obtain forgiveness for any harmful act they might
have committed toward the dying in the past. There must be no danger of
a lingering hidden envy or secret resentment on the part of those who are
about to begin a journey to the world of the dead.
The dying Rom must never be left alone. This is not only out of compassion
for his condition, but also for fear of possible anger. He must not die
in his or her habitual place. Nomadic Roma traditionally move the death
bed in front of the tent or caravan, usually under an improvised canopy.
Relatives and friends gather around the dying Rom, day and night. Other
Roma in the camp take care of practical matters such as feeding the visitors
and tracking down those friends or relatives who have been difficult to
reach. Tears and lamentations are publicly displayed.
Touching the body of the deceased is discouraged, for fear of marimé,
or contamination. Because of this he or she is washed and dressed, in the
finest clothes, immediately before death. If death has been unexpected
and this has not been possible, a non-Roma, such as an undertaker, is usually
called in to perform these tasks immediately following the death. Some
tribes may plug the nostrils of the deceased with beeswax or pearls to
prevent evil spirits from entering the body.
An important step is the gathering together of those things that will
be useful to the deceased during the journey from life to be placed in
the coffin. These can include almost anything, such as clothing, tools,
eating utensils, jewelry, and money.
A small band is sometimes hired to play marches,
going ahead of the coffin. This band is followed by the widow or widower,
other mourning relatives and, if local religious customs must be followed,
by a priest. As this procession enters the cemetery, the sobbing of the
mourners increases. This display of sorrow reaches its peak as the coffin
is lowered into the grave. The mourners generally throw coins, bank notes,
as well as handfuls of earth into the grave.
The color worn by mourners at Romani funerals, until recent times, has
traditionally been white or red. Today, black is often adopted as the color
of mourning. White has been thought of as a symbol of purity, of protection,
and of good luck. In some Eastern European tribes, the women will dress
entirely in white, and the men will wear white ties and gloves and place
white bands around their hats. Red, too, has symbolized protection against
the evil spirits of the dead and has often been worn at Romani funerals.
Roma feel that the color red brings good luck, probably because of the
ancient belief that blood is the source of vitality and life. Red blouses
and skirts are common apparel for women at funerals among some tribes,
and men often wear red kerchiefs around their necks. Red is also a dominant
color in many Romani funeral decorations.
Following the burial, all material ties with the
dead must be carefully destroyed. Whatever can be burned, such as clothing
and linens, will be turned into ashes. Articles such as plates, cups, glasses,
or jewelry that belonged to the dead will be broken or mutilated. Sometimes
animals that belonged to the dead must be killed. Only the horse is usually
excluded from this rule. The deceased's automobile, even trailer, may be
burned or destroyed. This removes any possibility of marimé
from the deceased. Some tribes take this a step further and believe that
the deceased's spirit will need their possessions in the afterlife.
Since this obviously imposes great financial hardship on the surviving
family, it has become more and more usual to sell these objects rather
than destroy them. They are never sold to Roma, and they should not be
sold as to profit enormously from the death of a Rom. No Roma would consider
risking marimé, or contamination by accepting or buying them.
There should be no trace of the deceased in the Romani camp or household.
Even the use of his or her name is avoided, except when absolutely necessary.
According to traditional Romani beliefs, life for
the dead continues on another level. However, there is a great fear among
the survivors that the dead might return in some supernatural form to haunt
the living. It is for this reason that the name of the dead should not
be mentioned, that the body should not be touched, and that all objects
that belonged to the dead must be destroyed. The survivors must be protected
in every way from the evil marimé spirits that the dead can
emit. To avoid this, stones or thorn bushes are sometimes placed around
The Roma believe that the soul of the dead might be reincarnated in
another man or animal. Most feared of all is the possible reappearance
of the dead as a muló or "living dead." Unless strict precautions
are taken, this muló might escape from the body and seek
revenge on those who had harmed him when living or had caused his death.
The mere sight of a muló, who can appear as a wolf, terrorizes
Roma. It is a certain sign of bad luck.
A belief in the supernatural obviously plays a
significant role in many aspects of Romani life. However, of all their
rites, the customs and rituals connected with death are more filled with
fear and superstition than any others.
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