Due to the structures influenced by Hinduism, the worship of ancestors represents an inter-group phenomenon and is anchored within the culture of the more traditional Roma and Sinti groups. Some influences from the respective present religion – like in the case of the pomana (meal in honour of the death) – have been integrated into this religious system, which has been handed down for centuries and adapted to their own beliefs. (1)
During the period of mourning there are different rituals and rules, which differ from group to group. The function of mourning rituals is one of transition in order to prepare the path for the dead into the world beyond and to help the relatives overcome the loss and mourning after some time.
For the Sepečides it is forbidden to dance, male Vlach-Roma may not comb, shave or wash. For other groups the shaving ban refers to the whole mourning period. According to the belief of the Roma, the spirit of the dead (mulo) could come back for a certain period of time. For the Kalderaš this period of a possible return lasts 40 days. For other groups (e.g. Sinti) this period lasts one year. Only after this period can the dead be admitted to join those ancestors who are well disposed towards the living people. In certain situations the return of the death’s spirit is welcome and considered as a special kind of affection. If the negative influence of the mulo is feared, incantations and rituals are used in order to protect those living from the threat.
Protection rituals and incantations
Fire and water rituals are of a particular relevance in this context. Traditional Roma believe that the mulo is afraid of these two elements and therefore avoids their proximity. If the death of a person is already foreseeable the Kalderaš light candles which have to burn until the funeral. They believe that fire and light have a purifying power as well as the power to keep away the spirit of the dead. One of the most serious vows of the Kalderaš refers to this ritual:
Te del o Del te merav bi memeljako te xoxadem tu.
"God should care for me dying without a candle, if I had told you a lie."
In order to “smother“ the spirit of the dead, the Romanian Kalderaš take one piece of soil from the grave of the dead and throw it into a well. Also the so-called "knot ritual" is of certain relevance. Every day during the 40-days period a knot is tied in a cord. On the fortieth day one knot after the other is loosened again. After having loosened all the knots a bottle is filled with river water and empted again. According to the belief of the Roma the spirit of the dead can appear also in dreams and pronounce the death of the respective person. The Turkish Sepečides use the following incantations in order to defend themselves from this threat:
Devlam, phando te avel leskoro drom kale kandrendar.
"My God, his way be hindered by black thorns."
Laying out and funerals
Irrespective of which religion the different groups belong to, the
laying out of the body is to be preferred at home, rather than in a mortuary. During the in-house laying out, which has to last at least 24 hours, the dead must not be alone at all, not even for a second. It is forbidden to eat or to drink in the presence of the dead. Men and women take their turns during the wake. In Christian as well as in Muslim groups elder women took over the role of mourners. The ritual mourning and tearing to pieces of clothes is believed to keep away the death’s spirit.
When the deceased was taken from the home to the cemetery the traditional Vlach-Roma groups used to pour water after the dead.
Amende kêren jek kakavi paj, aj kana ingêrdol o mulo pa khêr, śoren kodo paj pala leske, aj meken e kakavi kadja te xaštil, amen mothas, ando drom karing o mulo kodo (...)
"“We use to prepare a cauldron with water and, when the dead is brought away from the house, the water is poured after him, and we let the cauldron "yawn", like we say, towards the dead (...)"
The Muslim Sepečides, also know this ritual, but attach to it the contrary effect. For example, when a member of the family is leaving for a journey, they pour a glass of water after him. For the Sepečides water resembles the circle of life and expresses belief in return. In this sense, water does not symbolise defence, but protects the traveller so that he comes back well and healthy.
Different intra-group traditions that have still been used up to a few decades ago, can be defined as cleaning rituals. A person who had been soiled by the presence of death had to be
cleaned in the form of a ritual. Years ago, many groups used to burn the deathbed, tent or caravan for "purity" to be established again.
The funeral of the dead takes place three days after the death of the person. The funeral ceremony itself differs according to the respective religion. In view of the psychological dimension regarding the process of healing and mourning, aspects common to all Roma groups can be noted: Roma funerals are generally much more emotional affairs compared to the funeral of the majority population.
In contrast to the Christian occidental customs the Roma express their pain through mourning
rituals, beyond the extent that is normally allowed by common conventions. In fact, the aim of the mourning rituals of the Roma is to cope with the pain without feeling limited in showing it expressively. Musical performances pertaining to the dead, as well as personal presents thrown into the grave create an additional emotional close relation to the dead.
Thodàm leskê, řaćia ando moxto, kon volil alkoholo. But źene, kon pel kadja, thon leskê řaćija, thon kasave buća, so volilas ando trajo, sar te na makar mulo, te na avel śelno khančesko, te avel les pe kuća lumnà, t' avel les sa.
"We have given him Rakija into the grave, him who loves alcohol. Many people give the one who loved drinking Rakija (into the grave), one gives things he liked in life to take with him, so that, even if the one is already dead, he does not long for anything, so that he has everything in that world."
The belief in the omnipresence of the mulo is of central relevance also during the funeral ceremony, fire and water rituals fulfilling a protective function.
There is the custom, for example, to throw a match over the shoulder when leaving the cemetery and not to look back in any case. The Austrian Kalderaš on the other hand use a stone. The custom of the Kalderaš not to shake hands when expressing one’s sympathy can presumably be put down to the risk of a ritual soiling by the mulo.