The prayer house of the First Congregation of the Old Believers in Daugavpils, where there are more Old Believer churches than anywhere in the world. Photo courtesy of Marginalia.
RIGA – Wearing head scarfs and skirts, women flock to a church on a cold and lazy Saturday morning, hours before the winter sun shows its rare face in the Latvian capital.
The rain varies from a drizzle to a downpour as one by one the women cross themselves and bow down, looking at an icon on the wall of an unkempt, yet still beautiful Grebenschikova prayer house in Riga.
They do so three times before quickly run inside the building where the service celebrating Christ’s baptism has been going on for several hours in a packed grand hall of the largest Old Believer congregation in the Baltics.
I ended up there that morning to pick up a cross to carry.
A day earlier my family buried my last living grandfather, who had died after suffering several strokes which made him an invalid for the last 15 years of his life. He died early morning, hours after I arrived from the United States as if he had waited for me to come. His condition had suddenly worsened causing some concern to my 74-year-old grandmother, his primary care-giver.
My grandparents are Old Believers who came to Riga from Latgale in eastern Latvia in the 1950s when many country folk flooded large cities in a reversal of the trends of the inter-war Latvia. He served in a local police, reaching the rank of a captain. Because he didn’t want to join the communist party, his career basically stalled until he was forced to completely retire because of his first stroke episode
My grandmother called the church after we found my grandfather dead in his bed. In Western countries, traditionally funeral arrangements can be pre-paid and funeral services are generally quick, taking less than two hours. In the Old Believer tradition, the church takes care of everything and naturally steeps up the price of a funeral to the point that you don’t realize how much money went to bury someone until you calculate the expenses after the fact.
Perhaps, it’s a typical Russian way of doing business – hidden costs. The cost of the funeral is this much and this is what is included. However, any little thing – such as moving of a coffin – cost extra. Old Believers have always been shrewed businessmen.
An old woman who works at the church told a family member on the way to the graveside that the people in charge ought to thank priests, by giving them some money. She nearly died from excitement when she heard me called out the priest’s name to give him an expression of our gratitude for the God’s service he had provided.
“Father Mikhail,” she yelled – her voice ringing with some bizarre excitement – when she realized that father Mikhail couldn’t hear me. I remembered my grandmother’s sister-in-law – a devout Old Believer herself – who called these people “church rats.”
A van with two men – one of them old with a typical Old Believer beard – arrived to pick up the body. They brought in the stretches and asked me and my father to do the work. We loaded the body up into the van, climbed inside and took a journey through the city to the church, where it was prepared for the ongoing service.
I’ve been to many funerals in the West. I attended a funeral once when a coffin stood right outside the doorway of a south Michigan church. Every time someone walked in, the door would hit the coffin making a noise. I attended a funeral which ended in cremation, when a coffin moves on the belt into a firy furnace to be buried. Another graveside service ended with people leaving the coffin above the ground – some in the West apparently believe that seeing the body of a loved one lowered into the 6-foot deep hole is too distressing, so they avoid it all together not realizing that this constitutes a normal grieving process.
The Old Believer funerals, as I found out, are long and therapeutic. The two days of singing and reading psalms concludes with a service that lasts over an hour. The priest burns the incense, while a man and a woman sing prayers interchangeably. The body is covered in fresh living flowers and white linen, so that the only thing you see is his face. The priest lights up candles and places them along the perimeter edge of the open casket, making it seem like it’s lit on fire.
By the end of the service, the coffin is moved onto a base, and women form a line to say good-bye to the diseased. Some just look at the diseased, while others pinch his cheek, kiss him to bid adieu to the life well-lived.
When the time comes, two men place the lid on the coffin. When that happened, my grandmother’s sister-in-law spoke up.
“You didn’t uncover his feet,” she said.
“We most certainly did,” said the church rat.
“No, you didn’t.”
They opened the lid and my grandfather’s feet were not exposed. This small detail was quickly corrected and the lid was placed back on the coffin.
It was getting dark when my grandfather’s coffin was buried at the new Bolderaja cemetery in northern Riga. His became one of more than a dozen fresh graves – quite a sight to behold – all covered in green wreaths and flowers with crosses making a Christian denomination they once belonged to.
Apparently, we forgot to bring the traditional cross for the grave, which is why I ended up going back the church the following morning, meeting women in head scarfs on their way to the Saturday service.