Romani Customs and Traditions:
Death Rituals and Customs
All Roma tribes have customs and rituals regarding death. The belief in the supernatural is fundamental, common to all Roma, and the extent to which they believe varies slightly from tribe to tribe. Spirits surround us all of the time. These must all be carefully guarded against, or combated by the use of spells and charms. For Roma, death is a senseless, unnatural occurrence that should anger those who die. At the approach of death, Roma are concerned not only with the pain and heartbreak of the final separation from a loved one. They are also worried about the possible revenge the dead, or muló, might seek against those who remain in the world of the living.
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.
When death finally comes, the lamentation increases. From that time until the burial, certain traditional customs are observed. Above all, there is total absorption in the mourning, with no distractions or activities. There is no washing or shaving or combing of the hair. No food is prepared. Only the drinking of coffee, brandy, or other liquors is permitted. Mirrors might be covered and vessels containing water emptied.
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.
There is inevitably a large crowd at a Romani funeral. It is an occasion for friends and family to unite, to wish the departed a good journey as he or she enters a new life. Newspaper accounts sometimes describe the elaborate funerals held for an "important" Rom. It must be remembered that a huge funeral is the rule and not the exception in Roma society, and all Roma are entitled to enormous funerals.
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.
Another tradition with some tribes following the funeral is a dinner called a pomana. It is an enormous meal, usually the first one eaten by the mourners since the death of their friend or relative. In some tribes, the deceased may be represented at these meals, by another person of the same age of the deceased and dressed in a similar way. These pomana are held at various intervals, traditionally nine days, six weeks, six months, and, finally, one year after the death. At each of these pomana, certain relatives, beginning with the most distant ones, announce their intention to end their period of mourning. Last to do so, after one year, are the deceased's immediate family.
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 grave.
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.
Traditions and Beliefs of the Romanies
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