Office of the Dead
The unique Catholic tradition of chanting Latgalian psalms, called mirušo ofīcijs, translated in English as “Office of the Dead” is still practiced today in the eastern – Sēlija and Latgale – regions of Latvia. Although it may sound quite ominous, the purpose of it is benign – to pray and intercede for the souls of deceased relatives, initially during the first days immediately following the death of a relative and before the funeral, and also a year after their passing. The tradition is an important part of the grieving process. It is also increasingly considered a symbol of Latgalian identity.
This tradition was taken from traditional Catholic services where this prayer cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours has been included as part of the service and has been carried out in Latin by the clergy since 800 AD. Brought to Latgale in the 18th century by Jesuit missionaries, representing the Jesuit order in the Russian Empire, for two hundred years the tradition has continued in people’s homes by local women, without the presence of a priest.
The Office of the Dead is sung immediately after, and on the nights following a person’s death and continues for an hour and a half to two hours in a meeting format. For the local inhabitants, death is considered a natural part of life, more so because in Latgale even today many people still die at home. The body of the deceased is then laid out in an auxiliary building (a barn, garage, or some other cool place) where it remains while funeral arrangements are being made. The Office is performed with the singers sitting around a ceremonial table that is decked with a linen tablecloth, lit candles and a crucifix.
The tradition is closely associated with the pagan ritual of the ancient Latvian tribes, honouring one’s ancestors in the darker, colder autumn months. The ancient tribes believed that preparing a feast for the souls of their ancestors during this period and thanking them for their assistance if the year had brought a good harvest was the harmonious way to balance the thin veil that exists between the living and the dead. The feast was laid out in the barn or the sauna. The Jesuit missionaries realised they could not completely eradicate this tradition and therefore put a Christian slant to it, providing a slightly different framework for this process of honouring one’s ancestors.
There is also a tradition to hold an annual Office of the Dead for the whole family, around All Souls’ Day (2 November) in remembrance of all the family members that have passed away. This is an important family gathering which most members of the extended family will try to attend, as it is an event unifying and strengthening a sense of belonging to one’s extended family – not only for those who are alive but also those who are viņsaulē (translated as: “on the other side of the sun”). These are Catholic prayers – the prayers are for the souls of the deceased as they enter purgatory – the intermediate state where souls end up after death before they go to Heaven or Hell – and are purified of their sins before heading to heaven. Latgalians of this faith, believing that their actions can still help their loved ones after death, are diligent in performing this task and continuing the tradition.
Unfortunately, the tradition is under threat of disappearing as it is performed mainly by the elderly. It was, however, included in the programme of the folklore festival “Baltica” in 2012, and it has also been highlighted by researchers as a folklore tradition worth preserving.