Exploring Mourning Rituals - Interview

Conversation between Andreea Vlăduț and Zamfira Ludovica Mureșan on the ritual of mourning. 

Original Audio Language: RO
Transcript: Andreea Vlăduț 
Translation: Andreea Vlăduț
Date: 16. 08. 2023
Location: Muzeul Satului Baia Mare, Maramureș county, Romania

Zamfira Ludovica Mureșan was born in a small Village in the Region of Maramureș.

She has taken part in local traditions and took care of the rites, showing a special interest in these occasions. From her teenage years she established a special collaboration with Grigore Leșe. Together with him, she participated in performances in which she interpreted songs from birth, wedding and funeral rituals.

In 2016 and 2018 she participated in the project An Occupation of Loss by artist Taryn Simon, an unique depiction of songs from the burial rituals of communities around the world, as a representative of Romania.

In the summer of 2023, she participated in the project Moirologue, a performative approach to the ritual of grief, merging experimental electronic sounds with laments, doine and hori.  

Andreea: In the short biographical description, you mentioned that by participating in the community events and rituals, you developed an interest in funeral rites, or to be more precise, ancient rites from the Maramureș area. When did this interest for funeral customs develop, and especially for the mourning ritual?

Zamfira: I have followed these rituals within the community since I was a child. At first more shy, and as time went by, I learned them, not necessarily with intent, but by participating frequently in community gatherings. I heard the women of the village mourning the dead and what a powerful impact they had on those around them. Then, I realized the importance of mourning. And later, I started to sing traditional music from the village, not necessarily related to the funeral rite, but among them, and later, I realized that this is one of the most profound. That’s how I started to perform laments as a regular base.

A: You gathered the knowledge on laments and their structure and then performed them all around the world. But how was the process of initiation?

Z: The lament is personalized and generally a specific lament is created for a person at the specific time, when all those events take place in the days leading up to the funeral, but it is not a lament to be memorized and repeated over and over again. Yes, there are certain lyrics that are repeated, that you come across many times and that you can adapt to any song for anyone. E.g. Death, much you’re cursed. These are lines you find in almost every lament because people are raging against death, but mostly the lyrics are focused on the deceased person. So they're not learned, they are composed, at best, the night before, or hours before you perform them.

A: What symbols are usually used in laments? What is the structure of a lament?

Z: The lament begins with a cry for the dead. Either you call them by their name: vai Ioane, vai Marie, vai Vasile or you address them with an appellative that shows how close you are to the deceased. Vai gură și gurucă, for example, is an appellation with which you start a wail, or Oh, dear mother, or Vai bunucă. It shows that the person was dear and close to you. And these lyrics are not necessarily only occurring  at the beginning of the song, they can also appear during it, in the middle, at the end. So that the feelings of the mourner are very clear to the deceased.

A: The direct address to the deceased is part of the structure of the lament, but is there any symbol? E.g. Symbol of light.

Z: Yes, there is. For example, life can be likened to a spring, the beginning of life is a spring, then it flows smoothly towards maturity, until death, it is a cycle of life. Light appears everywhere in the lament and also in the funeral ritual. The candle must accompany the last moments of the dead and be lit for as long as the deceased is in the house, to keep burning.

A: And the crossroad? The borders?

Z: Yes, at the crossroads, the funeral procession stops and which are basically signifying the turning points in the life of the person, but also after, that of the soul's journey after death. They have to cross the borders. In our country we call them: Vămile Văzduhului1, in the number of seven. The human soul must be helped to pass through these gates / borders.

A: We kept talking about borders (vămi). Is vama only found in the funeral ceremony or is it also found in the lament?

Z: There are laments that include some references. The mourners guide the deceased through the whole after-life road, letting them know how to cross the borders, how to get over that impediment that comes into their way.

A: I would like to underline the differences between the versified laments and the natural / improvised mourning song. Cântecul de petrecut mortul2 has a fixed unchangeable structure and bocetul3 is improvised and adapted to the relation with the deceased. Could you provide further details regarding the distinctions between the two types of laments?

Z: In our country the verse of a lament is done by skilled people. It also has some direct reference to the dead. Different lyrics are attributed to each person. I know about the The Fir Tree Song4, The Dawn Song5, which are somehow versified Lamentos and are more specific to the southern part of the country. We don't have this song in our ritual, but it's quite similar to the lyric I'm talking about, with a very long length, many mythological references, and possible aspects of the afterlife.

A: Women guide the dead through the funeral ceremony and the act of mourning. How many women usually mourn the dead? Do they take care of the ceremony, the funeral ritual?

Z: There is no set number. There are some funerals where only one woman mourns. And there are others that are more than one. It depends on the mood of the women who participate at the funeral preparations and the burial ceremony, because the singing of the dead also takes place during the two days before the funerary ceremony. There are women who help in the preparation of the funeral and those women, the moment they hear the church bell ringing, they stop what they are doing, and start singing. It's like a signal to them and then they each start to mourn in one corner of the yard or house.

A: And why the corners of the house?

Z: I don't know exactly what the symbolism is. I think it refers to the four corners of the world, that is to say that in all parts of the world it is known that there is a huge grief, that the one who has gone has left a deep sorrow around those left behind.

A: I'm thinking it's the border moment. The place is not well defined (left, right). It is a turning point, a crossing border / gate.

Z: Perhaps because it is a turning point. I don't know it very well and especially women who do this, they do it by instinct, by habit, they have learned from mother to daughter and if you ask an older woman why they do it this way, she will say this is how the customs are.

A: The voice in mourning songs was used as a way of resistance against a patriarchal system, because the lament is often sung by women. What do you think is the role of women in the practice of mourning or in the whole approach of the funeral rite? And for you, how does this manifestation work?

Z: I think women are more sensitive, because they give life. They are there at the time of the birth and at the time of death. Men have their role, but women can express themselves in this way, through the song of the dead. They celebrate it. And just as there is a song at the birth of a child, a lullaby that the mother sings, there is also a song of the dead. And so, at the end of life, women are the ones who accompany the soul, sometimes the soul of the one to whom she / they has/ have given life, because sometimes situations like this happen where a mother buries the child. I think this is the explanation. Then women allow themselves to express their feelings, whereas men, by their nature, are people who close their feelings, they don't want to express their emotions often.

A: Do you think it's externalizing or is it the only time when women can exteriorize? Expressing grief is used as a way of resistance and somehow gives a certain power to the woman because in the past, women didn't have an opinion, and through ritual in general they gained a public voice.

Z: There is a possibility. This is a dramatic way of externalizing and it comes across very well. It is the moment when the woman can be heard. And besides that I also wanted to say that women are the ones who deal with the house, the life, the interior, with the soul. If you go to a church, you will see that most of the people who go there are older women, they are the ones who take care more of the soul, of their soul and the souls of those around them.

I also wanted to say something else...the moment someone dies in a community, things practically turn upside down. It's a departure from normality, a departure from what is usual, from everyday life and then practically everything is changed. If married women normally wear their hair up in a bun, the moment someone dies, you can see that something has happened, because they are allowed to leave their head uncovered, their hair unfurled. Something has upset the order of the community. Also the clothing which is usually black, shows the same thing, a departure from the pattern, something that has changed things in the community. And maybe this cry that belongs to women in our area, would also mean the moment when they can come out. So, it's still something out of the ordinary, because yes, in our Romanian society, especially in the traditional one, the man is the one in charge, the woman is the second voice. And then it's her moment.

A: We talked yesterday in the car, that you somehow managed to transform the lament into an artistic form, already performing it to a wide local and international audience. How do you use the mourning song in your artistic practice? In what form and aspect?

Z: I try to keep intact the structure as much as possible, if not almost one hundred percent. I don't want to change it for anything. The only thing more difficult is to emotionally transpose, but I usually think of my losses when I have to perform, which immediately takes me into that world. The emotions overwhelm me and it puts the lump in my throat that is absolutely normal in a lament. It's normal to cry, to rage. Women used to sing until they lost their voice.

A: It should be mentioned that the funeral lasts 2 days and on the third day the deceased is buried. Is there singing on all three days or are there breaks in between?

Z: The church bells are rung 3 times a day, morning, noon and evening. And then they mourn. There are women who mourn more often, but these are the essential times of mourning. At night, during the wake, there is no mourning. Maybe by a closer relative of the deceased. The night of the wake is a time for celebrating life. They used to joke. Just last night I asked my mother about the women's talk yesterday. What was that game during the wake? And she told me that in a longer piece of cloth they tied a potato. And with that potato they would hit the others to get their attention, to somehow take their mind off the tragedy. They were trying to somehow ignore the fact that there was a tragic moment. There are some areas around here where masking was practiced. People wear masks. Now they still watch over the dead, but they don't do the same rituals, the games or the masking that they used to practice.

A: Every time I start a project that is based on this topic, I find it very difficult to get started and I ask myself many questions about it: do I have the right to access this topic? Because I feel I don't belong to that community anymore. How do you see it? Bringing it on stage, taking it out of the original context ... as you said, even if you try not to change its structure and melodic line, you still take it out of the original context ... do you think you're changing its importance?

Z: Yes, there is some compromise. It's true because it would be good to see these rituals on the spot, where they happen. But in a context where we are losing more and more of our traditions, modern life is making us move away from them, whether we want to or not, communities are moving away from them, it's basically a compromise attempt to keep it alive. It's not the best option, but I haven't found a better one.

/ Zamfira Ludovica Mureșan during Moirologue performance, Matca artspace, 21. 08. 2023, photo credits: Sara Piñeros

A: But still turning it into a stage-performative context, do you think it creates an awareness?

Z: There is some awareness. I don't know to what extent. I would say that just as a literary work conveys certain feelings, so do the traditional manifestations of the people in the villages convey certain emotions, which some receive and others do not. There will be a small number of people and if there are one or two, it is enough, if they receive the message. It's clear that it's not going to be a successful thing. But at the moment I don't see any other option, but indeed even traditional hori6 should be seen by people at home, at the countryside, directly on the field, but they are seen on stage, because that's the only option. And it would be good, even if they are seen on stage, to see the ones that are traditional, not others that adhere to the traditional. They appear traditional, but they're not.

A: How do you make someone aware that the lament / song is a traditional and authentic one?

Z: You can do it just through education. I cannot do anything about it.

A: But education means also going directly to the community and learning it from the source.

Z: At the level of each school, after all, the school is in charge of education. Or the family. They should find a way to get in touch with the traditional village realities and practices. Now, I don't know to what extent this can be done, but it would really be the best, ideal option to see all these customs in their natural environment, in a space in which they take place.

A: Coming back to the burial ceremony, the whole tradition is replaced by a funeral agency, by a capitalist culture, and personally, I don't know how you can bring it back, however interested you are in this ancient tradition. I find it very difficult. In what other ways could it be shared? What would be new alternatives or perspectives?

Z: In every community, some return to tradition can be made. Maybe not completely, but to some extent, people are encouraged to do that. 

The traditional manifestation in its original form should be encouraged, but only that, cannot be done by one person, by two, it should be at the level of the ministry of culture, which should propose projects like this because there will be a lot to research. It should be that someone should research if the manifestations are authentic or not, because otherwise we risk losing them.

A: All these manifestations have permeated/ changed a lot over time because the funeral ritual is a pagan ritual. How has Christianity changed the ritual?

Z: Yes, there are many steps. I don't know exactly how the funeral ritual was celebrated before Christianity. There are some clues about pre-Christian burial rituals. I say that in the ritual as I know it, the only introduction of the church was the actual burial service and yes, the Christian symbols that are placed at the grave. Otherwise, many of the traditions I have seen in my village are in my opinion pre-Christian. None of them appear to be Christian. After I have examined them in detail. It is true that the church adopted these traditions precisely to be able to merge well with the population and to a large extent they were not modified. Of course the priest was called to perform the funeral service, the church bells were rung. I have not heard in any of the laments direct references to Christianity. I've read it here and there, how the laments claim that on the other side the dead will make another house of clay and live there, the church. Christianity basically holds the end of earthly life as a passage to the waiting of Judgment Day.

Then whether or not, another life eventually follows based on your sins or good behavior. So I haven't seen much intrusion of Christianity. We also have many traditions related to ancestor worship that are practiced throughout the year. These have nothing to do with Christianity either, I would say. On all major holidays, people go to the grave and give gifts to the souls of the dead. People gather in churchyards where there is masa moșilor, where again they are remembered and the souls of their ancestors are honored. So there's a lot about us that has to do with these pagan, pre-Christian traditions.

A: I was thinking of the no. 7, which is a recurring symbol in the lament: eg. 7 borders. Do you know why this number is important?

Z: I can only say what I learned in school that 7 is a magic number. For example: The fairy tale. No other explanation. But these magic numbers don't exist in folklore for nothing. Probably there was some power of the number, which was somehow considered enchanting, magical, that could make you do things that are normally not possible. Something beyond normal.

A: From where did you learn The Fir Tree Song? Where did you first hear it and when was it first performed?

Z: In the years when I played traditional music, in the concerts with Grigore Leșe, I had performed a passage from the death ritual. It was a passage from the birth, wedding and death ritual. And there, because we were a group from all around Romania, we didn't just focus just on the Maramureș area, we tried to approach the traditional songs from several areas. The Fir Tree song is from the Hunedoara area. And I know another one from the Gorj area. We have studied many songs because we tried not to focus just on one part of the country. Other areas of Romania have very engaging traditions that deserve to be heard, seen, passed on, that merit all the effort.

A: Did you interpret it alone?

Z: No, no…in a group. Because that’s how you usually do. The Fir Tree lament is sung in a group of four women.

A: But in this area the fir tree symbol exists, even though it is not performed as a lament?

Z: Yes, to the young and unmarried people. It looks like a fir tree. It takes the form of a flag, which is usually found at a wedding. The specific flag is the symbol of a man. The flag is a log, a piece of wood, which is decorated with what people think is most beautiful: mirrors, flowers.

A: When singing the dead, certain gestures are used. What gestures? And in relation between the mourners, is there a certain type of gestures and communication between each other?

Z: The gestures are uncoordinated movements. The woman who mourns the deceased moves back and forth as if she has no purpose. It's like she doesn't know where she wants to go and where she wants to end up. She changes direction often. And then the hands... the hand-holding, it's like a gesture of desperation. This shaking of the hands, which shows that someone doesn't know how to find a solution to the situation that has occurred and is continuously searching, thinking. Again, this gesture, also with the hands, as in an embrace. Also a gesture of tension because it creates a specific rhythm. The hands are again put around the body as a way of protecting something. Rubbing the hands is a gesture I have often seen and another one will be putting the hands above the head with the palm open, towards the sky. Unusual gesture. There is no other occasion to do it. It's another gesture that shows a disturbance of the regular, something out of the ordinary has happened. These are the body movements that I have noticed in my community, gestures that I don't think would mean anything but sorrow, suffering...it shows how helpless man is in the face of fate.

A: These gestures in the act of mourning are done in-sync by all the mourners?

Z: Not really, the gestures are uncoordinated. Each mourner is improvising and creates the linguistic language of the body based on the sorrow expressed through the moment.

A: Are there any bursts of cries, screams, etc in the act of mourning?

Z: Yes, there are excesses. The death of a person is a tragedy...certain situations when the person is in deep sorrow...we have seen extreme situations, like the woman wanted to throw herself in the grave or...

A: I don’t refer to the grieving family, but to a mourner…

Z: No, I haven't seen out of the ordinary bodily or vocal manifestations from someone who is not a very close relative.

A: What responsibility do we have as artists who touch on the subject of mourning and do not necessarily belong to a community with an active attitude towards the tradition of grief?

Z: The responsibility is to keep the original sense of tradition...not to deviate it. I don't think we're deviating at all... My song is the same. The fact that we put it in a new approach doesn't harm anything … I think. Otherwise no one would come to listen to a mourner singing alone for half an hour. This song is not meant to be beautiful and melodic for the ears.

(comment in-between Andreea) The lament creates certain states of feelings and helps the listener to manage them.

Z: I say I haven't altered it by anything, just surrounded it with other sounds, as it might be surrounded by the whistling of the wind or the rustling of water, or the sounds of nature. But there's nothing I've modified it with. And in this way we can address a much larger number of listeners, because otherwise there would be few people who want to directly face their pain. It's a psychological thing in our times. Most of the people suppress their feelings and keep accumulating them, and at some point some of the actions we do, are as a result of a lot of pain that we haven't expressed. And then many people don't even know what feelings they have buried deep inside their soul. Then the manifestation of mourning is a way of rediscovering the inner feelings and how one can manage them differently.

Christa: Are there any symbolic animals in the lyrics of a lament?

Z: The Bird of the Dead, the cuckoo announces death. I have also heard of the cuckoo as having a role in luring one to a certain place, like the to a certain area, house, yard as the predisposition that a tragedy will happen. Dogs are not harbingers, but react in a certain way when death is very close.

A: These examples signify foreboding signs, but are there any mythological characters or symbols in the song that depict zoomorphic images?

Z: I don't know...in The Fir Tree Song there are many personifications and figures of speech in which the life of a person is resembling elements of nature, but because we don't have them, here in Maramureș, the image of the lament is emphasized more to the relation with the departed, I rarely remember meeting them. But yes, many poetic devices are used in the songs of the dead, in versified laments.

A: Thank you very much for the interview and all the interesting and relevant information that you shared with me / us.

1. The Borders of the Horizons;
2. Dirge song to celebrate and guide the deceased in the afterlife; 3. Improvised lament;
4, 5. In Romania, especially in Gorj and Mehedinți region, we still meet a few women who sing in a choir with an antiphonal interpretation of specific funeral songs and laments such as Cântecul Zorilor (The Dawn Song) and Cântecul Bradului (The Fir Tree Song). These two lamentations contain mythical representations specific to the neolithic matriarchate (e.g: direct address to The Mother Goddess and The Bird Goddess);
6. Horea lungă / hore cu noduri - is a particular manner of vocal interpretation from Maramureș area, characterized by the prolonged form of musical phrases, the special technique of glottis clucking sounds, and choked sobbing effects.