Burial customs vary widely throughout the ages and across the world. Cyclopean pyramids of ancient Egypt, burning long ships of Viking warriors, the Buddhist cremation ceremonies of Japan, and the more recognizable western burial of the deceased in a casket, we humans have found almost as many elaborate ways for laying the dead to rest as we have methods of making people dead in the first place. But while the differences are as abundant as they are stark, underlying similarities unify many of these practices. Many cultures see death as not only the end of life on earth, but also as a new beginning. What better way to say farewell to a loved one, than by trying to prepare them for the unknown journey ahead?
Kings were buried with treasures, weapons, armor, and even slaves to lend them aid in the afterlife. Pennies are placed on the eyelids to pay the Ferryman for safe passage. Clothing and other goods may be burned with the body, that they may accompany the deceased on their otherworldly travels. Perhaps we do this out of love or respect for the deceased. Or perhaps we do it to ease their passage as much as possible, so that their specter doesn’t decide to hang around. In southern Estonia, the people have performed a simple ritual that may achieve both these goals.
Near the cemetery of Rosma village, Estonia, stands a small forest of trees. A grove really, with only about 200 trees still standing. When performing the funeral rites, the procession will pass by the grove, allowing a family member of the deceased to carve a cross into the tree. This marks the tree, and some say the spirit of the deceased uses the marked tree to then climb their way into heaven. Most believe that such an act prevents the deceased from haunting the living. Whether or not the cross is meant to appease the spirit, or to entrap it, I do not know. Some trees are used exclusively by one family, much like a family grave plot. Others are communal. Further customs dictate that pine trees bare the marks of deceased men, while spruce are for women.
Not everyone carries the same respect for tradition, and unfortunately trees have been cut down for civil expansion. Still, new crosses appear even to this day. And while the village of Rosma uses the cross for the transition from this life to the next, on another hill in Estonia, the cross is used to represent the transition of two lives into one. On the borders of the Parishes of Reigi and Puhalepa is a small hill bearing hundreds of simple, hand-made crosses. The story goes that two wedding parties confronted each other on a path, and both sides refused to make way for the other. Seems reasonable. Considering the fairly small size of the town, the participants in either wedding probably knew each other. Obviously, they would have hated each other, if they scheduled their weddings in competition.
At least that is my take on it. So, as these wedding parties refused to show respect, the inevitable altercation broke out. One pair lost a bride, the other pair lost a groom. The obvious and folklorey response? The remaining groom and bride wed each other. I mean, they already had the clothes, and could now combine the receptions for a much bigger party. In recognition of this legend, people now erect crosses in hopes of not only bringing good fortune, but also to ensure enduring relationships. While this is the local legend, the signs at the site state that the crosses were originally placed there in memory of the Swedish population of Hiiumaa Island, who were forcibly removed in the 1700s to Ukraine. Whether you believe in the legend, or wish to show your respect for the relocated Swedes, you and other visitors are free to adorn the hill with your own crosses. In keeping with tradition, natural materials and simplicity are preferred.
Photo credits: Ahvenas