Officium for Dead in Latgale and Augšzeme

Since the end of the 18th century, a peculiar musical ritual has been widespread a peculiar musical ritual in Latgale and the Catholic parishes of Augšzeme called “Psalms” (saļmes, salmys, saļmas, depending on the dialect) in folk parlance but the Officium for the Dead (from the Latin officium defunctorum) in the Catholic Church practice and scientific literature.

Officium of the Dead is historically a kind of prayer of hours (one of the two main service genres, the other being the Holy Mass). It originated around 800 A.D. and was performed as a part of the funeral liturgy as well as at the wake and on All Saints Day, November 2. Over the centuries, the Officiums of the Dead has become known as a prayer said by priests in Latin. In Latvia, however, this Officium has been localized as a folklorized phenomenon occurring mostly at home, without the presence of the priest, and in the native tongue of the participants.

A full performance of the Officium takes one-and-a-half to two hours and, in the view of the rural inhabitants of Latgale and Augšzeme, is an integral part of the home life. In Latgale, especially in the countryside, people still tend to die at home instead of the hospital or old people’s home.  The dead person remains in the house until the funeral, the body being kept in some clean, cool place like the veranda or the granary. The funeral often being a few days off, the living are preparing for the mourning ceremony, including performing the Officium in the evenings. In the old days the performance took place every night, but these days it is mostly reserved for the last evening or last two evenings before the funeral. The members of the household, relatives and friends of the deceased come together and conduct the Officium prayer. The table, usually an ordinary rectangular table in the living room, aroung which the singers sit, is covered by a white linen table cloth. In some parishes of Latgale, a pinch of salt and a piece of dark rye bread is placed next to the crucifix and candles: these are the symbols of the spirit of the house.

The performance takes place at the house also a year after the person’s death or if it is an annual memorial service for all the dead members of the family.

Marking a year after the person’s demise is still widespread in Latgale, whereas the annual tradition of performing the Officium for all the dead in a particular family is disappearing. The latter flourished in the 1920s and 1930s when in the dark time around All Saints Day an Officium was held in almost every household. Where the tradition is still alive, it also serves as a time when all the members of a family gather in one place. Since, in common prayer, the images of the dead are recalled in the consciousness of the living, it also serves as a meeting between the living and the dead.

The church Officium is usually held once a year on All Saints Day: the churchgoers gather about two hours before mass and perform the prayer. The cemetery ritual is similar.

In its essence, the Officium is one of the most powerful prayers for the dead in the pyres of Purgatory. The people of Latgale are well aware of the dogmatic context of the Officium and consider its performance a valuable opportunity to express their love and support for their loved ones even after their death. This awareness of participating in the destiny of a loved one even after their death provides powerful motivation to perform Officiums even under very trying material circumstances.

In many places, the performance of the Officium starts with the recital of the rosary. The psalms, however, are the principal structural element. In the first part, psalms are interspersed among solo readings of the Bible and responsoriums performed in a choir. A string of religious songs is usually added to the Officium.

In Soviet times, the practice of the Officium for the Dead was not particularly suppressed. However, the fate of the tradition was affected because the cycle of inheritance was interrupted: children and young people no longer participated. Nowadays, the performers are usually old people, which means that the existence of the tradition is on the brink of extinction.

Mārtiņš Boiko

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Mārtiņš Boiko par maija dievkalpojumiem pie brīvdabas krustiem un mirušo ofīciju Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2008.