Laying to Rest in
by Rose Mary Hughes
Funerals in Semlak are described by Katharina and George
Kaiser in a HOG Heimatbrief (newsletter) and I have
attempted to translate those parts which I thought would be
of most interest.. The elderly and the sick were cared
for in their homes or in the homes of their children.
There were no hospitals or hospices. As death neared,
the minister was called to give communion. A medical officer
would be called to certify the death. It was a rule or
law (not sure which) that the dead had to be buried within
48 hours—I’m sure this is because embalming was not
practiced. The relatives would be immediately informed
and they would arrive at the house to help in the
preparations of the wake and the funeral.
women would begin baking and the men would go about getting
the liquor. A coffin would be bought and the grave was
dug by the Glöckners (the bell-ringers) who would be
compensated for their labor. The coffin was placed on
a platform very much like two sawhorses. In the winter
the body would be in the gutestube (good room) in the
house and in warmer weather, it would be placed outdoors.
There was a fellow by the name of Andor Toth in Semlak who
was a master carpenter and he was also the coffin maker. The
coffins were painted and the name of the deceased, date of
birth, and age at death would be inscribed on a bronze or
silver plaque on the cover. The coffin was lined with
a dead cloth that was purchased from women in the
community who were recognized for this specialty.
There was also a pillow that was embroidered.
corpse was washed and, if the dead were a male, was shaved.
Clothes were carefully selected —for the males it would be
the most beautiful suit, the newest white shirt, and new
socks; for the females the most beautiful skirt, blouse,
apron and head clothe was picked. They even made
decisions as to how many underskirts the deceased would
wear. Sometimes the relatives did the task of
preparing the corpse and other times, women were hired to
prepare the body. Their payment would be in the form
of gifts such as dresses, soap, or flour.
next task in funeral preparation was to empty the largest
room of all furniture. Chairs were then set up for the
family and relatives of the deceased. All mirrors in
the house were covered with black, embroidered woolen cloth.
A funeral might be the first time the good room was used.
Since many families consisted of members of both of the
German communities’ churches, bells were rung at both the
Evangelische (Lutheran) and the Reformierte (Calvinist)
churches. In fact, often the bells would be ringing at
all five of the Semlak churches—this would happen when the
deceased was either young or widely known in the community.
The first ringing would be by the home church of the
deceased and shortly thereafter the other bells would begin
was a pattern for the tolling of the death bells. If
the deceased was a man, the large bell would begin the
ringing, tolling twice. Then the small bell would be
tolled as well. For the death of a woman, the small
bell would first be tolled twice, followed by the joint
ringing of both bells. If the death was of a child,
the small bell was rung once and then the two bells were
the day, there are what we might term calling hours.
Then at night, there is a gathering of the community.
The family would be in the good room with the deceased and
in the other rooms tables were set up to accommodate the
community members who gather to sing the songs of the dead
from the hymn book. I can remember that these practices were
honored at the death of my grandmother in America—I believe
it was for the sake of my grandfather who still followed
most of the Semlak traditions. Grandma’s relatives and
Semlak friends arrived with their hymnals. Grandma was laid
out in the front living room; the mourners, mostly women,
seated themselves in the dining room and began singing the
traditional death songs. The men were in the kitchen
sipping schnapps. In Semlak, the minister arrives to
give his condolences to the family, says some prayers, and
then he goes and sits with the singing community.
After the singing, the body is covered with the dead
cloth and the liquor bottles are then passed around
among the men and the women eat kuchen and drink coffee.
They talk about God, the world, and the deceased. This
activity continues until midnight and is called the dead
day of burial, the bells ring at 11:00 in the morning and at
2:00 in the afternoon. Most of the funerals take place
at 2:00 in the afternoon. The bells intermittently
ring for an hour and then 15 minutes before the “funeral,”
they ring continually signaling to those who wish to
participate to gather at the dead one’s house.
yard of the deceased’s home, benches (provided by the town)
would be set up and a table with an embroidered (black or
white) cloth for the minister. A funeral service in
the church was only for those who had been church
dignitaries. Eventually pictures of the dead person
would be taken. This is still practiced for upon our
visit to Semlak, my cousin, Bartolf (Langosch) Susi, showed
us pictures of her two sisters in their caskets in 2002.
the bells had stopped tolling, the service would begin.
The coffin cover would be put in place by two of the
pallbearers. Nails had already been put in the place
and they would be hit to nail the coffin shut. The
service was begun with the singing of hymns. While the
service was going on, some of the pallbearers would have the
task of carrying the wreaths and flowers
into the yard. They would open the mourning room
windows and turn the chairs on end (a superstition that they
believed prevented another death happening too soon in that
was a set or fixed order for the seating at the service.
At the head of the casket, the remaining spouse and children
would be placed; at the foot would be the deceased’s
brothers and sisters. Behind them would be the nieces,
nephews, cousins, etc. depending upon the degree of
relationship. The wreath of the spouse was placed on
the coffin cover and the other wreaths would be hung on the
yard fence or on the vines. The service consisted of
the singing of hymns, Bible readings, the personal record of
the deceased was presented, the sermon, and then the
minister, in the name of the corpse, said goodbye to the
marriage partner, the children, parents, brothers and
sisters, neighbors, etc., etc. He had to be very
careful not to leave anyone out as these would all be people
the deceased had greeted daily.
As the last
mourning song is sung, the procession to the
cemetery is formed. Those in the lead are the
cross bearers who are two elementary school
children. They like to be cross bearers
because, if they do their job well, they are given
some money at the gravesite. The bearers of
the cross carry the wood piece, which has the dates
of birth, and death engraved on it and is used to
mark the grave. For the Evangelische, it is a
triangular shaped board and for the Reformed, it is
an Acacia wood stake.
cross bearers are the minister, the church father
(not sure what his role is), and the curator who
leads the singing on the road to the cemetery.
If a band accompanies the procession, the singing
and the band play alternately. In Semlak, it
was the practice for the coffin to be carried on the
shoulders of eight men. To be asked to carry a
coffin was considered an honor and a holy
obligation. However, if the deceased’s house
was at one or the other end of the village from the
cemetery, then twelve men were chosen as
pallbearers. They would share the task of
carrying the coffin the two kilometers from the
house to the cemetery. The coffin is preceded
by the mourning guests and is followed by the
pallbearers’ wives who carry the wreaths.
While the procession is going to the cemetery, the
church bells are tolling. At the grave, the
minister leads the mourners in reciting the
Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The
wreath of the closest relative (the spouse most
often) is placed in the grave with the coffin and
then the pallbearers close the grave with shovels
and their heels. They place the grave cross in
the fresh earth and finally the wreaths are placed
upon the mound. A final funeral farewell hymn
is sung as the minister leaves the grave and then
the community takes its departure as well.
They return to the home of the deceased and cake is
eaten, liquor is drunk, the chairs are returned to
the community building and the funeral is over.
In earlier times, there was a special meal cooked
for the relatives and the pallbearers, which usually
consisted of sheep paprikasch.
story concerned my grandmother’s activity at a
funeral in Semlak. She was one of the women
who were to remain at the deceased’s house when the
procession left for the cemetery. Their task
was to clean up the dwelling and to change the
linens on the bed. As she prepared to strip
the bed, she felt the sheets and they were warm!
The person wasn’t dead after all. She ran from
the house to the cemetery to tell them not to bury
the person. I don’t know what the illness was,
but the person was either in a very deep, sick sleep
or in a coma. It is easy to see how this might
happen, as they didn’t embalm their bodies.
mourners there was also a ritual to follow in regard
to wearing apparel after the funeral. Parents,
children, and siblings wore black for a year’s time
in honor of their loved ones. They refrained,
as well, from participating in weddings or other
forms of entertainment. For more distant
female relatives, the wearing of long black dresses
only extended for six weeks or, in some instances,
they were only required to wear a black head cloth.
[Comment of translator: “Of course, these rules only
apply to the women members of the family”]
there were no fir trees or florist shops,
wreaths and flowers were usually made of
paper in Semlak. There were several
women in the community who made them.
girls were usually dressed as brides.
The young woman’s best friend, or a
relative, would precede the coffin carrying
a bridal crown on a pillow. Her young
female friends wore white dresses at such a
funeral. Suicides, in the past, were
buried at the edge or in the back of the
cemetery. No bells were not allowed to be
rung. However, today this is not the
practice and suicides are given the same
treatment as other funerals and burials. In
the picture above, it is assumed that a
young man has died since the two lead
mourners are carrying a man’s festival hat.