|Schwabian Burial Customs
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connnie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
In Teplitz, Bessarabia, when a villager died the
community came together to carry out age-old rituals
and customs that had been brought to South Russia
from "Schwabia", the ancestral homeland of the majority
of the villagers. On the day of death, the clergy
visited the home to pronounce the final blessings
for the deceased. The death was then announced by
the ringing of the church bells. A printed or hand-written
note was passed door to door through the village to
announce the time of the funeral.
Only on very rare occasions was a person buried the
day of death. We had no funeral home. People washed
and dressed their loved one at home, and laid them
down in a cool room in the house. Then the immediate
family would gather to grieve, to mourn and to wait
for the arrival of relatives. In Teplitz there were
people in town who, for a fee, would wash and dress
On the day of the funeral, the open casket was placed
on a stand and then carried outside for viewing. It
was customary for people to come and see the body,
pay their respects and stay for the funeral. Funerals
were usually large, with many villagers in attendance.
The funeral was held outside the home, and then the
entire group proceeded to the graveyard for the burial.
Everyone in Teplitz knew each other, and most of us
were related by either blood or marriage. We have
been, and always were, a close-knit community.
Funerals for adults or for children were similar,
with some differences for an infant. A baby that died
was not kept long in the house. The funeral service
was performed soon after death and was attended by
only a small group of family and very close friends.
A newborn that died was usually carried to the graveyard
by the midwife.
Singing was a large part of our life in Teplitz. My
mother frequently sang at funerals - songs such as
""Verlass mich nicht," "(Don't Leave Me);
or ""Dort ueber den Sternen,"" (There Above
In Teplitz, the graveyard was out behind the church.
The graves were facing toward the church, with the
headstone placed on the end of the grave away from
the church but facing toward the church. By the 1930's
our graveyard at the Teplitz church was divided into
four sections. The old graveyard from the pioneer
days was closest to the church. For most of these
graves, the markers were either missing or so weathered
that it was impossible to tell the name of the deceased.
For many of these old-timers, there were no relatives
left in the village to maintain the graves.
After 1900, the graveyard site was extended further
up the slope behind the church. The main section was
used only for adults, with a "Kinder Friedhof" along
the south-eastern side of the new section. The graveyard
was fenced in with a masonry wall. Just inside the
north-western wall of the cemetery, space was set
aside for "sinners" - people who committed
suicide. Such folks were laid to rest without ritual,
at sundown, and with only family members in attendance.
Usually a church Elder performed a brief grave-side
service for these people who were felt to have died
without a soul. I remember so well as a child, walking
quickly past the graves of these "sinners"
- afraid that devils were present there. Thinking
back then, I wonder why we felt they had no soul.
Our thinking reflected our ignorance of mental illness.
After the funeral and burial, a dinner was arranged
for close friends and relatives. In honor of the deceased,
this was an elaborate occasion that in many respects
resembled a wedding feast. Relatives helped out by
bringing baked goods. The community also stepped in
and helped out, especially at the busy harvest time.
Food items that were customarily brought to the "Leichentrunk
"(funeral dinner) included "Suessbrot, "a braided
holiday pastry enriched with eggs, cream and sugar.
The braided pastry dough was basted with an egg wash
prior to baking so that the top became nice and brown
in the oven. In connection with a funeral dinner this
pastry was referred to as "Leichenbrot." My mother's
specialty was to use the same pastry dough, placing
it in a shallow round or rectangular baking pan and
topping it with lots of "Riebele" or "Streusel - "rich
little balls made of butter, sugar and flour. This
version was called "Riebeles-Kuchen".
Funeral dinners were not always sad. Getting together
with local friends and relatives and often relatives
from out of town created a party atmosphere. The visiting
and exchanging of thoughts and memories about the
deceased was very helpful in processing our grief.
The Pastor or Sexton was generally included in the
"Leichentrunk "and was usually the one asked to conclude
the event with a closing prayer". "These spiritual
men gave us stability and unselfishly stood by everyone
in all of life's needs. This was also true of the
church Elders. The Elders were often called on to
perform an emergency baptism in the home for a newborn
that was weak with little or no chance of survival.
Such baptisms generally included a reading from the
Bible to bless the newborn infant. The most important
aspect of such emergency baptisms was the assurance
the presence of the Elder represented to the parents
that their child was being cared for in the name of
the Lord. Standard infant baptisms were performed
in the church as soon as the mother was able to walk
around. All church baptisms included the presence
of the "Doda" and "Dede" - Godfather and Godmother.
These spiritual parents played an important part in
bringing up a child. I was lucky with my Godparents,
from a child's perspective, as they gave me nice gifts
For several weeks after a funeral, it was customary
for the clergy and close friends to stop by the house
to visit the grieving family. The family time of mourning
extended for months. Older widows wore black dresses
"forever," it seemed. Even beyond the period
of mourning, the gravesites were maintained by family
members. Love and dedication was shown by placing
flowers and greenery on the grave. Visiting the graveyard
gave a feeling of family togetherness as feelings
of love and devotion were recalled. Such visitation
was similar to a home-coming and showed how dearly
our folks loved each other. Sometimes a grieving relative
would go to the grave to cry or pray.
Religious holidays and special occasions always included
a visit to the cemetery. Examples of such days would
be the deceased's birthday, the anniversary of the
day of death, Easter, Christmas*,* and New Years*.*
The dead were included in all memorable occasions.
Year-round, the graves were kept clean and freshly
decorated with plants. Many graves were surrounded
by a wrought-iron fence with a gate that locked. Many
grave stones included a picture of the deceased framed
with carved palm branches and texts of Scripture.
Easter was a particularly special time to spend moments
visiting the graves of loved ones. We were brought
up to show gratitude to our parents, to show them
love and respect as long as we should live.
As a refugee in 1945, I was 15 years old and a year
short of being conscripted into the army. When we
were fleeing to Germany from Poland, an old man died
on our train out in the middle of nowhere as we rode
in a cattle car. The next time the train stopped,
we removed the man's body from the car and laid him
down beside the railroad tracks. Someone covered him
up with a blanket and we collected stones to hold
the blanket down. Another young man and I asked some
ladies to come over and join us while we had prayer
for this man. I prayed a simple prayer, although I
don't recall exactly what I said. Then we sang ""So
nimm denn meine Haende und fuehre mich," "(Take
me by the hand and lead me on). To end our service
we sang ""Jesu geh voran," "(Jesus walk
ahead of us). The singing was so heart-felt, so emotional,
that we all cried. What a needed release that was
for us! In that moment of our despair we reached out
for hope and freedom. Our crying released our pent-up
emotional load. We all felt that Jesus was standing
there beside us. I felt an intensity of emotion that
I had not experience before nor since.
After we had arrived in East Germany, there was an
8-year old girl who died. Although I was just 15,
I was the one who conducted her funeral - a service
that was* *brief and simple*. *Her body was laid to
rest in a proper* *grave. The girl's mother was so
grateful to me and thanked me for giving her daughter
the dignity of a Christian funeral.
When my infant brother was stillborn in 1945, I went
to the local pastor to report the death. He couldn't
or wouldn't do a thing for us, and suggested that
I go see the gravedigger. A baby born dead had no
soul. The pastor was not willing to comfort us in
our need by assisting us, so it was my job to bury
my baby brother. Since I worked for the farmer-gravedigger,
I was able to arrange for a place in the cemetery
to bury my brother's remains. Again, I held a simple
grave-side service to give dignity to the deceased.
That simple service was so special to me and gave
me peace. Giving dignity to my brother helped me realize
that my life also had dignity.
When we eventually reached West Germany and were settled
in the Wuerttemberg region, the home of our ancestors,
we found that the funeral customs in Teplitz were
the same as in Wuerttemberg. It was as though we had
never left! In Wuerttemberg as in Teplitz, the people
would sing by the house of the deceased, and then
there was more singing on stops before the cemetery
was reached. One difference was that in Wuerttemberg
the casket was closed at the house and then transported
with a fancy carriage and team of horses to the graveyard.
The funeral dinner, the "Leichentrunk", was held in
a restaurant rather than at the home.
To cremate a body was unheard of - to even mention
such a thing would have been an insult. To this day
our people will have no part in it even though space
in Germany is getting scarce and expensive. In Germany
today, cemeteries are maintained as a park-like setting,
a place for peaceful remembrance of life with one's
loved ones and a reflection on all one's memories.
The love and respect that was instilled in us toward
our family in life and in death has been a foundational
bedrock of our community. It remains with us still,
and gives our lives a sense of the importance of carrying
on our traditions with pride and dignity.
Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns
on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his
childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences
of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945
before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the
reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955).
Note: Many of the recipes mentioned
can be found in "BessarabischeSpezialitaeten:aus
der Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer, 1814 - 1940",
1999,82 pages in color, compiled by Gertrud Knopp-Rueb.
English translation of the cookbook title is "Bessarabian
FoodSpecialities: From the Settlement Period of the
German Colonies in the Black Sea Region, 1814 -1940".
This cookbook is available including a translation
of the recipes at this webpage: library.ndsu.edu"grhc"order"cookbooks"knopp2.html