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Armenian Burial Rituals

Armenian Burial Rituals

Every nation has its own traditions and rituals which identify the mentality and history of the people. This cultural heritage unites humans and makes the nation unique. The fact that there are a lot of similar rituals in some countries can be true only due to the resemblance of all human beings all over the world. Each tradition is extremely crucial for mental education and development. That is why parents always inculcate respect to the national customs in their children.

There are no more important or less important traditions in the cultural life of a community. All of them perform a particular function and reflect history and characteristics of the nation. Customs represent every stage of human life: birth, baptism, wedding, maturity, and even death. Burial rituals have a significant value for the nation since by means of them a community can show respect not only for the deceased but also for their ancestors. The life after death has always remained a mystery for people. That is why, through centuries, humans respected the phenomenon of death, made sacrifices to the gods of death, and were very afraid of it. Every nation formed its own set of burial rituals through the course of time in order to help the deceased person leave this world properly and enter the unknown Kingdom of God. Among other nations, Armenian culture represents honorable and reverential treatment of death in an elaborate funeral procession accompanied by the sacral liturgies and psalms which takes place in special type of the Armenian funerary architecture – two-story chapels. Armenian burial rituals can be a bright example of respectful and careful attitude toward the phenomenon of crossing the “life-death” line. They embody the significance and mystery of death which is prized by the Armenian nation.

Funeral Procession

Funeral in Armenia is an elaborate, long, and expensive process. It is not only a marker of the family’s social status but also an obligation for those who have respect for the national traditions and a deceased person in particular. Expensive burial procession is a matter of personal dignity in Armenia. For instance, an average funeral wreath can cost around $100, which equals to a normal salary in the country. In Armenia, funeral rituals are of the primary importance among other national traditions. It is an obligation to provide a deceased person with an appropriate farewell by the world, friends, relatives, and beloved people.

Memorial meals. The Armenian funeral processions include three memorial meals during the first week after the death. People cannot miss the meals since it can be a sign of disrespect for a deceased person. The dishes for the funeral are chosen accurately according to the local traditions.
House rites. On the eve of the exequy, a wake takes place in the house of the deceased. The doorway of the building is usually decorated with expensive wreaths and bouquets. The open casket stands on the black-draped platform in the center of the living room. The lid should be in the upright position near the coffin. Mourners come there and pay their respect for the deceased person, and then they should leave. Only relatives and close friends can stay for a nightlong vigil. It is the last night which they can spend with the beloved person.

Funeral cortege. Early in the morning, all people return to the house before going to the cemetery. After that, cortege moves along the city streets. The procession makes its way towards the cemetery. At the front of the funeral procession, pallbearers go with an open casket and the photograph of the deceased person. They move at a slow pace, accompanied by a brass band or by authentic tones of doudouk. Nowadays, these burial traditions are changed a bit, and the main reason of it is heavy traffic on the roads. At present, corteges march three times around the block of the deceased. Then, in front of the entrance to the house, pallbearers stop and rotate the coffin overhead several times before putting it into the hearse. At the end of the procession go the mourners. Women should leave the funeral before the casket is closed and put into the grave. They can come the next day and grieve for their loss.

Clerical Funeral

What is more, Armenian burial traditions are strongly and explicitly represented through the funeral processions in the church circles. By following all rituals, monks, priests, and deacons have an opportunity to express their respect for the deceased frate. Burial traditions in the Armenian Church contain a great number of rituals, rules, and beliefs. In the funeral of a layperson, everything should be planned perfectly: from the quests’ clothes to the place where the coffin stands. Deviation from the common burial rituals during the funeral of a church member can threaten the dignity and honor of the deceased person and damage the image of the church itself.

Influence of Christianity. The nature of the unique Armenian funeral rituals is determined by the fact that the Armenian Church officially accepted Christianity in the early fourth century. Consequently, despite the fact that liturgy of the church and Armenian theological discourse were influenced by multiple cultures that conquered the land, they preserve Christian beliefs and their own liturgical contributions.

Liturgy. Funeral liturgy is one of the most important parts of the Armenian burial procession. Actually, it is the texts of the liturgy that links Armenian rituals to other Eastern burial traditions. As in other churches, liturgy texts and ritual actions differ according to the rank and social status of the deceased person. Each funeral rite has its fixed texts and rituals. Funerals for laypeople in Armenia have the unique basic principles and shape. They differ from other burial traditions in a way how old and new rituals are combined. Each single rite of the procession is accompanied by the performance of psalms, hymns, or script readings.

Funeral procession in the Armenian Church is a sequence of rituals, customs, and stations which are spread over many days and a great number of locations. All parts of this process should be preserved and done in a proper way. It is impossible to miss any of the burial customs, even if it is a tiny detail. Every single component of the burial ritual has its unique function. That is why it is crucial to follow all the traditions precisely. The ritual begins at home of the deceased. Family, deacon, and priests share prayers, psalms, hymns, and scripture readings. Deacons, priests, and monks gather to pray together to represent the unity of the church. As a rule, one of the oldest prayers “God of all spirits and of every flesh” should be read during the service at home. This well-known and archaic pray is repeated several times, and the last time it is pronounced at the graveside service.

Rituals in church. Then, the funeral procession moves to the church. At the doorway of the sacral building, prayers, psalms, and scripture readings are performed again. The place where the coffin stands has an extremely important role, and it defines the status of the deceased. If the coffin is right by the door, it is a sign of a lower status of a layperson. Nowadays, the difference between ranks of the church members is dwindling, and the coffin is usually carried into the nave of the chapel. After the casket is placed, the funeral liturgy begins. The liturgy at the door of the church symbolizes that the soul of the person is exactly between earth and heaven.

Cemetery. The next step of the funeral procession is the cemetery. The cortege with the coffin at the front slowly heads for the cemetery accompanied by the recitative of the psalms, hymns, and prayers. At the grave, the priests begin the burial service. They are usually accompanied by different psalms and prayers which are a part of other burial rites.

Throwing dirt into the grave is one of the key rituals of the burial procession. This ritual symbolizes that the soul of the gone person finally abandons the earth. The mourners take dirt, make a sign of the cross, and throw the soil on the lowering coffin. When the grave is completely filled with dirt, a final set of prayers is uttered. Then, priests bless the soul of the deceased person, and all people should leave the cemetery in peace, be happy, and pray for the soul of their gone friend or relative.

Home of the deceased. The last station of the burial procession is the home of the deceased. From this place the funeral procession begins, and at this place it comes to an end. The home is considered to be a sacral place during the burial tradition since it is still full with the energy of the deceased person. All people return to the house in order to have funeral meal there. Before the meal, an official ritual of psalms, hymns, and prayers, which is led by a priest, takes place.

A visit to the grave is also an obligatory part of the Armenian burial rituals. The following day, the procession moves toward the cemetery again; and psalms, hymns, and liturgy are performed at the grave of the deceased. It is the last rite in the burial procession. This ritual symbolizes the respect for the person. It is a sign that the surrounding misses and grieves for the gone person.

The fixed and official order of rituals performs a certain function: to praise God and raise the soul of the deceased. The Armenian people hope and trust that they will impetrate the rest for the soul of the dead in the heaven through prayer texts. The prayers and hymns are considered to be expressed in the voice of the deceased. It is thought that in this way the soul of the dead person can avoid judgments and the sins of the deceased will be remitted by absolution. The main purpose of the sacral text is to relieve the deceased person from suffering, and it marks the theological difference between Western and Eastern burial traditions and churches. These differences are still apparent in the cultural peculiarities of the Armenian nation, and they determine the existence of particular burial rites.

It is an interesting fact that cremation is not allowed in the Armenian Church. Theologically and ritually, the only possible and right funeral ritual is the burial in the ground. The prohibition of cremation makes the Armenian Church closer to the Eastern theologies which also consider cineration to be inappropriate.

Armenian funerary architecture

Another important aspect of the burial culture of the Armenian nation is the particular tradition of the funerary architecture. In the fourteenth century, the development of the two-story funerary chapel began. This type of building soon became extremely popular in Armenia and was the main place where worships of the dead were made. The history of the Armenian funerary architecture was deeply influenced by the conversion to Christianity. At the same time, there was no single expression of the burial architecture, but parallel tendencies in the art of building developed. The existence of various movements was determined by the revival of architectural forms from earlier centuries. The wake of the evolution of religious architecture took place at the beginning of the thirteenth century. At that time, monastery complex gained its popularity. The complex usually consisted of new churches, funerary chapels, service buildings, such as refectories and libraries. During this period, two-story funerary chapels developed in Armenia. The relationship of the Armenian architectural peculiarities with the neighboring countries cannot be stated. Any parallels between the Armenian funerary tradition and other architectural cultures are not obvious.

The Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, the Armenian funerary memorial cult rose greatly. By the end of the fourth century, a number of martyrias was built all over Armenia. These edifices consisted of a single room, a hall, and a cupola. It is considered that these simple forms made the start for the construction of more elaborate compositions which nowadays are the main part of the Armenian architectural legacy. Various sanctuaries, chapels with scripts, and royal mausoleums are also dated back to the fourth-sixth century. Nevertheless, all these findings cannot be identified as a single type of a funerary architecture. Famous examples of the edifices are: the royal mausoleum of the Arsacids at Adhdz and the mausoleum of the Prince Ardavasd Kamsarakan at Nachdjavan. Another type of widely developed funerary architecture in the Armenian culture is cemetery. At that time, the places for rituals which are related to the cult of dead and places for burial rituals were separated. There are a lot of examples of cemeteries which arose around the memorial churches with many tombs. Usually, these tombs were stone sarcophagi, and some of them were raised on stepped podiums. There were two main tendencies in the cemetery development. In the royal cemeteries, a minor martyria was constructed around a funerary church. In the graveyard for common people, graves were arranged around the older martyria. These two types of cemeteries illustrate that the tombs were always close to the place of worship. It is the union of these two elements that gives the Armenian cemeteries such a memorial character.

In the tenth and early eleventh century, in order to guarantee the redemption, Armenian nobles increased the tendency to build places of worship and funerary monuments within extremely small distances. Such places were immediately construed as sacred sites and became popular all over the Armenian territory. One of the most prominent examples is the Church of the Apostles at Anti. It was built in the middle of the eleventh century in the burial area by the prince Vahram Pahlavuni in memory of his brother. These memorial edifices were also built by rich founders to serve the role of thier own tombs in the future.

Domical architecture. The development of the Armenian funerary architecture illustrates that there was a bright tendency to replace the central apsidal layout of the churches by the hall-with-cupola type throughout the previous millennium. These movements which exist not only in the Arminian culture but also in the Christian Byzantine and the Middle East architectural traditions are a matter of great interest for various scientists. For instance, Barbara Schellewald made a series of researches in which she compared prominent examples of funerary architecture in Armenia, Syria, and Byzantine. The scholar comes to the conclusion that the functions of the buildings differed with the context. In addition, these sacred places were usually used for private and supplemental liturgycal purposes and for commemoration of particular saints. Such constructions have also a practical function: the useless mass for the church lightening is taken away.

The eleventh century in Armenia was marked by integration of two distinct spaces with their own memorial function in a vertical succession of a single edifice. The first example of this structure is the Church of the Shepherd at Anti. Both floors of this church have six radial niches and create a form of a twelve-pointed star on the exterior.

The mausoleum of princes Vahram and Sarkis is an actual illustration of the multi-mausoleum with funerary chapel near it. It was built in the twelfth century, and it includes a hall with a square plan and barrel vaults which are followed by another narrower hall with a depressed arch.
Another prominent example of the world-famous Armenian funerary two-story chapels is the mausoleum of Bagratids, which is the part of the monastery of Horomos. The building has the composition of two distinct funerary chapels that are completely identical in plan and elevation. This picturesque church was built in the thirteenth century. Both chapels are structured on two levels. The lower space is considered twice deeper than the upper one and considered to be used for the tombs.
Two-story funerary chapels. The fourteenth century is the peak of the maturity of the funerary churches and bell towers with several stories. A lot of two-story funerary chapels appeared at that time. There was an apsidal hall at the basement level, and it became the cruciform at the upper level. As a rule, the edifices were topped by eight or twelve columns. The double staircases preceded the entrance to the upper level. All the lanterns of the building were built with a cupola with a conical top. The compositional strategy of the chapels was practical (it creates the effect of lightness) and symbolic (duality of life and death). This symbol was created by vertical sequence of the volumes which opposed the sunlight and thus led to juxtaposition of the elements.

Funerary chapels in Armenia can be grouped together according to different characteristics. They are extremely similar in both their exterior and interior. For example, they all have the identical volumetric composition. However, only two of these churches, Yeghvart and Noravank, are enhanced inside and outside by an obsessive use of architectural decoration, which consists of botanic, zoological, and geometric elements on the flat surfaces.

Assessment of Contribution to the World’s Cultural Legacy

The diversity of architectural traditions in Armenia is determined by the history of the land. The country was conquered numerous times by its neighbors. That is why the funeral constructions and rituals include peculiarities of different nations. Such a combination of different customs makes the Armenian tradition unique and popular all over the world.

In my opinion, the Armenian burial rituals are an extremely complicate but interesting phenomenon. The nature of all ancient and sacral rituals was formed during the previous millennium. Since they combine both Eastern and Western cultural traditions, they represent the human cultural values at large. Every ritual has its own meaning and can be understood easily even by a foreigner. The Armenian burial tradition proves that this nation has a great feeling of respect for their ancestors and the deceased people.

The Armenian people know the value of their history; they preserve their traditions and make them an obligatory part of their life. Liturgy texts and psalms are of a great importance for this nation. The texts of sacral poems are known among people all over the country. What is more, the Armenian people praise the sacral rituals and think a lot about their mental life and soul. That is why it is impossible for the people there to economize on the funeral traditions. Moreover, the nation is thinking carefully about its architectural legacy. Consequently, a number of beautiful buildings in the country is the best example of it.

At the same time, the funeral procession in Armenia can be construed as too formal. While reading psalms, liturgies, and hymns or listening to the priest, the close people have no opportunity to spend some time with the deceased alone. Sometimes, relatives or friends want to talk to the gone privately, recollect some happy moment from the life, and say goodbye in a proper way. The prohibition for women to stay at the funeral after the coffin being closed is also an extremely useless and strange rite. Mothers, sisters, wives, or daughters evidently have the right to be present until the end of the procession.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Armenian burial traditions are full of interesting facts, details, and rites. The long rituals and cultural peculiarities are reflected in the history of the funerary architectural tradition of the country. They demonstrate the exchange between the Armenian Church and other cultures and their enrichment over the centuries. Funeral procession involves a great deal of rites and details that have their particular function. The Armenian funeral traditions concentrate on formal rituals rather than on private relations and feelings. Usually, the burial procession consists of several rituals: reading liturgies and psalms at home, cortege to the cemetery, rites near the grave, and the religious meal. The funeral customs take place in the church or in the well-known two-story funeral chapels. The Armenian people place great weight to the burial rituals. That is why they spare neither trouble nor expense in order to provide a proper procession.

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