Exploring the mysteries and metaphysics of Latvian cemetery traditions

The very particular Latvian tradition of tending graves and burial plots is included in the nation's cultural canon and plays an important role in Latvian society. Although attitudes towards death, dying and burial have attracted a lot of attention from anthropoligical researchers around the world, surprisingly little is known about the practice of visiting cemeteries, according to Madara Oga-Timofejeva, a student of social anthropology at Riga Stradins University (RSU), who writes below about her research project.

I plan to defend my master's thesis "The socio-cultural significance of cemeteries in Latvian society: relations with space, people and other species" next January. In my research, I will try to understand people's different perceptions of cemeteries as different spaces.

As part of my master's thesis, I have spent many hours in cemeteries, interviewing people, observing what is happening there and doing field research – that's what this "grave story" is about – a small insight into the life of an anthropology student.

Cemetery - the best place in the world?

I drew inspiration for my master's thesis from the experience I gained in the summer of 2022, participating in a study led by RSU researcher Agita Misāne "Memento mori: the end of life, death and the imagined afterlife in the life world of modern Latvian residents". I decided to conduct qualitative research in cemeteries to understand the different types of relationships that are practiced in this special space.

I think the paradox lies in the fact that grave visitors feel good and enjoy being in cemeteries. One informant told me: "I really like the cemetery!", another described the cemetery as the best place in the world. People in these liminal spaces enjoy peace, silence, reflection and self-reflection, but in deeper conversations they reveal experiences related to loss, separation, grief and suffering.

From field research interviews: What do you think a cemetery is?

  • Katrīna (42)

The grave is the place to put flowers. And just like going to church to get closer to God. Here, [you get] closer to that person. Those bodies are already dried up. But the idea is that my mom sees me from above. Here is just that memorial. I would like to say that there is a pleasant energy and peace in the cemetery. And those souls and spirits - they are not bad. It's true that they exist. But I believe they are everywhere.

  • Alexandrs (38)

Graves are, so to speak, an interesting place. A place where history can be studied. Read the inscriptions. But if we look at it as a place to visit dead loved ones, then... I will say this – the first thing that comes to mind is the traumatic experience from the godfather's funeral. That's why I associate graves with something terribly tragic. In short, a place where corpses are buried. It might be a very nice and peaceful place for someone, but it's not for me.

  • Linda (43)

It is the place where we bury the physical body and create a memorial to it. The first word that comes to mind is memory. I think it's a place to be with that person. You could say something quietly, thank you or ask for help.

Cemeteries are social and cultural constructs that are not just physical places to bury the dead, but that hold deeper significance and meanings. The aim of my research is to analyze cemeteries as social spaces, looking at them from several dimensions, paying attention to different aspects and gaining a deeper understanding of the different types of relationships maintained in cemeteries.

Among birds, plants and insects

We often overlook the obvious and don't try to explain why we perceive things and places the way we do. In cemeteries, not only relationships with other people and dead loved ones, but also multispecies relationships play an important role. Birds, animals, insects, plants, fungi and other living organisms meet in cemeteries to engage in relationships with humans and participate in the creation of space. For example, birds and insects, which we usually perceive as an irrelevant background, are important participants in the creation of the soundscape. On the other hand, the sounds of nature, in my opinion, are one of the aspects that make the environment of cemeteries harmonious and pleasant for their visitors.

Multispecies ethnography seeks to overcome anthropocentrism and foreground other living organisms. Plant blindness is discussed in this context , which is defined as "the inability to see or notice plants in one's surroundings." However, spending a lot of time in cemeteries, I have come to the conclusion that unlike other spaces where plants are treated as a green background, their role changes in relation to the space. In cemeteries, plants have not only a symbolic and emotional meaning, but cemetery visitors often associate them with supernatural phenomena.

As an example, we can cite the situation when accidentally sown lilies of the valley are explained as the will of the deceased, because they were the deceased's favorite flowers.

In another situation, mullein is not uprooted because it is associated with the personality of the deceased. In this way, plants that would otherwise be invisible become the center of attention of grave visitors, enjoying the appreciation and care of people.

Living organisms interact with the environment, influence and transform it. Soil, microorganisms and other life forms play a special role in the environment of cemeteries. In my opinion, grave visitors develop very interesting relationships with animals – not only because, for example, four-legged friends [pets] are taboo in cemeteries, while wild animals and birds are valued as an integral part of the landscape, but also because people often explain the presence of animals with the presence of a deceased loved one. reincarnation or a message from the otherworld through animals and birds.

Threshold to another world

I initially focused on cemeteries as threshold spaces where the temporal and spiritual worlds, public and private space, and life and death intersect. In cemeteries, people feel a symbolic approach to the world of the dead, experience emotional changes and gain experiences that do not occur in other everyday spaces. Being in cemeteries, the human mind is able to travel to another place and time. 

  • From field studies:

It has been raining and windy for several days. I drove up to the graves – the same place as always. But something has changed here – a new grave awaits me. Still fresh flowers. Someone has crossed the bridge from the world of the living to the world of the dead and the body is resting in the home of life. A place where dust will remain forever. The body, the flesh... the fact that a tangible part of a person is buried here is the most important thing that distinguishes a grave from a park, forest or garden. Field notes 07/05/2023, Madara Oga-Timofeyeva

As part of the research, I paid attention to both the mutual relations between people and the connection with the dead. Although visitors to cemeteries mainly recognize that burial places are intended for the maintenance of memory, the research revealed that conflicts and disagreements between relatives of the deceased are often resolved in cemeteries, and it is a place that brings people together. Regarding the dead, it should be concluded that the mutual relationship does not end with the death of a person – cemeteries are places where both economic and spiritual relations continue.

  • From field studies:

UNDERGROUND. I looked at the graves and thought about the stories of the visitors to the graves. The horror! What could be there? Bone remains? Teeth, maybe hair? Scary! People feel a natural fear of a dead body, which the earth is covering here. According to the respondents, we do not come to the mortal remains - we do not even think about what is hidden in the earth. We continue to relate to the spirit, the soul, the intangible part of the human being, no matter what we call it or where it resides - in our consciousness, memories or other inexplicable dimensions of life beyond the limits of the mortal body. This relationship is like a link between the past and the present, between a person and their mysterious inner world. None of us think about the corpse. We come to commemorate people's lives. To feel closeness with the person who has been by our side in life. I don't come to rotting flesh and rotting bones, I come to them, to my memories of them. Field notes 07/06/2023, Madara Oga-Timofeyeva

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