Grave Tending and Cemetery Festivals
Cemeteries are one of the visible expressions of Latvian cultural heritage. Over time, they have changed, but the graves received regular visitors and the tradition of their care has been sustained over several centuries.
Looking at this tradition of gravesite care, a study by archaeologists shows that both the Cours’ fire graves and Selonian burial mounds show respect for the deceased. In the 16th and 17th centuries, in the Duchy of Courland (Kurzeme) and Swedish Vidzeme, the landlords, clergymen and other outstanding individuals were buried in cathedral arches and courtyards. Farmers were still buried into burial mounds into the 18th century, when the Great Plague felled many residents of Kurzeme (1710) and Vidzeme withstood the Russian pillaging during the Northern War, turning the land on both sides of the Daugava River into a huge cemetery field. It took two to three generations for people to recover somewhat. Only in 1773, when Vidzeme was under Russian rule, the Governor ordered the cemeteries to be marked off by a fence or surrounding rampart. Burials in the churches or churchyards was prohibited, which explains why Vidzeme developed vast cemeteries. In Courland, after the abolishment of serfdom in 1864, many acquired economic independence and could purchase land for their family and relatives and homeowners arranged small cemeteries on their newly-acquired land. Over time, these evolved into parish cemeteries.
Covering the grave with flowers was apparently first practiced by Herrnhutters − members of the so-called Brethren congregations around Valmiera and Cēsis at the end of the 18th century. In Courland fishermen’s villages the tradition was to carve ornaments into the cross or adorn it with ribbons and cords. Tombstones with words cast in them, coats of arms and commemorative plates, had already started to spread in 15th century in Riga. When the law was adopted that provided for establishing burial places only outside the city limits, in 1773, the citizens of Riga obtained the so-called Great Cemetery. In 1910, the Riga City Council granted a nearly 100 hectares to install a suburban cemetery in the forest. The Forest Cemetery, which is over a hundred years old, has now become a very large “city of the dead”, whose territory was originally divided into religious congregations. The cemetery developed around the gravesite of Latvia’s greatest national poet, Rainis, was the first to be independent of denominational influence. The two world wars covered the territory of Latvia with the graves of soldiers.
During the summer, from late June to early September, cemetery festivals takes place attended by the relatives, friends and neighbors of the deceased: they congregate to commemorate the dead even if they live far away and even outside Latvia. This cemetery festival tradition has not existed for more than a hundred years, but it is strongly rooted and maintained by people belonging to the local community.
In preparation for celebrations, the cemetery is decorated with vases of flowers on the graves, candles are lit and fresh sand strewn around the graves; flowers are planted and decorative shrubs trimmed. Latvians care for the cemetery as if it were a garden, and landscape architects recognize that the Latvian cemeteries may be considered parks of sorts.
Cemetery festivals include a pastor-led church service or lay ceremony with music poetry, speeches and celebrations that take place either in the family circle by the cemetery if there are no relatives living nearby, at the nearby family home, or in the wider local community — village or town celebrations tailored to the cemetery festival period.
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