Attending Paștele Morților several years ago in the small Moldovan village of Vatici, where we lived for two years, was a beautiful, fascinating glimpse into Moldovan and Eastern Orthodox culture. I did my best to be respectful of the people I met, knowing this is a very personal and emotional holiday for many. I spent a lot of time just sitting with people chatting with them in Romanian: hearing their stories of loved ones who had passed away, sharing in some food with them when invited, and only taking the occasional picture with permission. I first shared this post on my old blog the day after I visited the cemtery, and I thought it would be a great one to update and expand for sharing here as well.
I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on Eastern Orthodox beliefs or traditions, I just wanted to share my experience in our sweet little village, and the things I learned about this day from my Moldovan friends.
Easter of the Dead is a holiday celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox church (which makes up 98% of the Moldovan population) on the Sunday after Orthodox Easter (which is on a different day than the Easter that most of us celebrate) and the following Monday. Everyone gathers in the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and they bring wine, juice, traditional braided bread (called colac), special Easter bread (called pasca), cookies, candies, dyed eggs, and anything else you could want to eat. There are tables and benches near almost every grave, and families clean up around their loved ones’ graves and spend the better part of two days just hanging out in the cemetery eating and drinking.
At some graves, there are several generations gathered, and the day seemed more like a celebration of the person’s life and legacy, but at other graves, there is only a lonely widow or widower. One woman told me (if I understood her Romanian correctly) through tears about her husband and 30 year-old daughter who died only 20 days apart.
They do all of this for the sake of their dead loved ones, who they believe live in what they call “the other world” (something akin to the purgatory of Catholicism but not as well defined). According to tradition, the loved ones will receive the gifts placed on their graves, which will make their lives in the other world more comfortable. They also put dishes, towels, money, and other things on the grave that they think the person may need; one man’s grave even had a brand new polo shirt on it.
Not to honor departed family members in this way brings great shame, because that means the dead are left in the other world without comfort. Protestants (non-Orthodox Christians) in Moldova don’t believe in this practice, and often have conflicts with Orthodox relatives over their perceived lack of care for departed loved ones.
At the cemetery, nobody seems in any hurry as they eat, drink, and remember loved ones among the gravesites, and eventually the local Orthodox priest shows up as he makes his rounds to all of the local cemeteries. He walks around the perimeter of the cemetery three times, and then goes to every grave. At each grave, someone hands him a cup of wine, which he pours out on the grave in the shape of a cross while he says a blessing on both the food and the person buried.
Then he takes a small paintbrush and vial of holy water and brushes crosses on all of the family’s heads while blessing them. For many of the children, he puts his hand on their head and says an extra blessing. A woman follows him singing Gregorian-style chants, and behind her are two guys carrying a large basket for people to donate some of their food to the priest. Once everything and everybody gets blessed, they begin sharing portions of what is on the graves with others on behalf of the deceased.
I was sent off with a few candies, a hard-boiled egg, and a full heart from being so warmly welcomed at such a special event. Moldova and Moldovan culture will always hold such a special place in my heart, and I’m so thankful I got to have this unique experience while we lived there.