How to Rest in Peace in Romania


Golden Globe nominee "4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days" may be the most celebrated and promoted Romanian movie of the past decade. But like all the other movies coming out of Romania in recent history, this film explores a theme that seems to obsess Romanian directors: communism.

The story of communism in Romania has been thoroughly mined by filmmakers. It's a little tired. If I made a movie to explore our national legacy, I would try to escape the communism mentality stigma and create a documentary about people surviving death, instead. We've indulged enough in re-representing the dreadful oppressions of dictatorship. Someone should look at our unique attitude towards death, which defines how Romanians survived and overcame the communism.

My imaginary documentary opens in the village Iloviţa on the second day of Easter. In the cemetery, a popular spot for villagers to gather with local VIPs  (the priest, the vice-mayor) and celebrate their deceased relatives. Everyone is singing.

The people walk through the graves, and commemorate each with a musical dedication according to the deceased’s musical preferences. The song might be a doina (a Romanian lyrical song, passed from generation to generation through oral tradition, which tells a story of grief or longing). Or it might just be a wordless rhythm, for mourners to dance around the grave. This is the inhabitants’ way of celebrating Christ’s Resurrection with their dead, who are believed to be also dancing in the afterlife. Red painted eggs and red wine are special guests. The ritual ends after each grave receives a musical dedication.

After celebrating death, cut to preparations for death. As soon as rural Romanians get married, they begin preparing for death. In black and white: the camera pans over my childhood. I am playing in my grandparents’ village, and then my grandmother calls me inside. Our house has a special room for the "death-coffer".

When I was ten, I was finally allowed to look at the death coffer. Inside was everything my grandmother had prepared for her funeral. A pillow for her head, with the Romanian flag wrapped around it. A scrap of white fabric to cover her "shame" in addition to the regular underwear. Her burial dress, a coat, shoes for the afterlife and a candle to help her soul see the way to Christ through the death’s darkness. Without all these items, my grandmother said, the other villagers will laugh at you, and consider that you lived for nothing since you weren’t even able to prepare your own death.

Now my grandmother's funeral. No music. The only soundtrack for most Romanian funerals is the mourning of professional wailers.  Only women can perform this profession. Whenever the grieving family runs out of tears, they hire a wailer to cry for the dead. The wailers claim that they are talking to the deceased’s soul and that they enter a trance as soon as the wailing begins. All the same, the wailers seem quite lucid as they improvise lyrics to tell the story of the dead person and how much he or she will be missed.

From 2010, according to the European Union norms,  Romanians are no longer allower to hire wailers to cry for their dead, nor may they carry coffins to the cemetery by the traditional dray. Another recent regulation is that the deceased’s clothes must be biodegradable. I have never heard of anyone worrying about compliance, though. If Romanians can laugh at death, they can laugh at the rules imposed upon their traditions for celebrating it. And cut!


Blog post courtesy of Alina Varlanuta

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