Ancient Burial Rites in Lithuania


Vėlinės, or All Souls’ Day (November 2) is sacred tradition for Lithuanians. Since ancient times, the period from the last harvest to Christmas Eve was dedicated to communing with the dead, and continued into the Christian era. The national broadcaster published an article on the Lithuanian culture of death this week, with input from archaeologist Gediminas Petrauskas.

The scientist noted that before Lithuania’s baptism, death rites included the burning of the dead, as well as burials in water and even trees. “Even without studying history, we all know that life expectancy used to be shorter back then. People often lived for 20 or 30 years. Death was certainly not as shocking as it is now – it was always there.” Death was close at hand, so the attitude toward it was quite different.

Archaeologists find countless items that were buried together with people – their very best things, such as spears, axes, and jewellery. In a late 9th-century document, the travelling merchant Wulfstan described the local funeral of a Prussian nobleman. It was a week-long feast, with drunkenness and bidding for the deceased’s possessions. Ibn Fadlan, an Arab envoy who attended the funeral of a wealthy Viking nobleman in the 10th century, described the same thing in his account: he witnessed a huge celebration, even an orgy.

Death and the afterlife used to be perceived very differently than in Christian society. Death was a passage from one world to another; it was not the end of life. Thus for soldiers, dying in battle was not so terrible.

The role of fire was very important. In Baltic mythology, it is said that fire was needed to help free the spirit. The first wave of the custom of burning the dead started about 1000 BC. The second wave started around the 5th century and spread to different Baltic tribes at different times. From the 13th-14th centuries, it became a unifying custom.

In general, the burning of the dead is very typical of Indo-European peoples and non-Indo-European cultures – from India, Nepal, Bali, all the way to our own lands. In Nepalese culture, there was partial burial, where part of the unburnt body was chopped up and buried in the bottom of a stream, and another part was burnt and scattered in the stream. To us in Western civilization, it seems barbaric, but to them it meant making the journey easier for the deceased.

In modern Lithuania, the practice of cremation is no longer driven by religion. For some, it is less expensive, for others, it is simply easier because seeing a dead body and seeing an urn at a funeral are two different emotions.

What we see from archaeological finds is not the whole picture of burial customs. There were many of them. We know from folklore and mythology that there may have been exotic burial practices, such as raising the deceased on a tree and leaving them to decay or to be eaten by birds, or scattering bones and ashes to the wind or on the ground.

A so-called “witch tomb” of the 14th-15th century was even found in Christian medieval Kernavė. A number of such graves were discovered in Poland. A very interesting feature here is that the dead are beheaded, and their head is placed between the legs. Historical and folklore sources indicate that this was believed to be one of the ways to prevent the dead from haunting relatives.

The water burial hypothesis was first raised in Lithuania in 1983, when archaeologist Vytautas Urbanavičius, while exploring the Obeliai burial site, found a place in the lake with burnt bones, pot shards, and around 2,400 other finds. At that time, the archaeological community was very sceptical about this hypothesis. Later, in 1993, several pits with burnt bones were found in Marvelė river in Kaunas. And in 2008, burnt bones from the 14th-15th century were found scattered in the lake in Elektrėnai. There were many of them: men, women, and children, all of different ages. This was the first well-documented find of burial in water.

A few years later, bones and an ancient silver coin with a portrait of Grand Duke Jogaila, dating to 1387-1390, were found scattered in the riverbed of the Kernavė river. This proved that burial in water was taking place also after the baptism of Lithuania. This was the beginning of the search for an answer to the question of why people were buried in water.

In the ancient Lithuanian concept of the afterlife, two elements are central: fire and water. Very often, a stream or other body of water separated settlements from the burial site. Various fairy tales mention how the characters enter the afterlife through a well, stepping into the water. In folklore and mythology, the spirits of the dead also lived in water.

Did the Balts believe in reincarnation? It is difficult to say because there is a lot of room for speculation in religious and spiritual matters. Gintaras Beresnevičius, who researched the Balts’ concept of the afterlife, spoke of metempsychosis, that is, rebirth into a different state, such as a plant, animal, or bird.

The main change brought about by Christianity was a change in burial methods. Christianity and the burning of the dead are inherently opposed to each other because burning contradicts the rebirth of the body. But Lithuanian Christianity was different from Polish, German, Italian, or Mexican Christianity. Up until the 17th century, people were buried with their belongings in Lithuania, which is completely un-Christian.

The old customs persisted even after the advent of Christianity. For example, although Mexicans are among the most devout Christians in the world, their current death cult and the Day of the Dead festivals are reflections of their old pre-Christian culture.

The burning of the dead reappears in the second half of the 19th century. At that time, there was a huge development in medicine, a new awareness of hygiene, and a rapid increase in the human population. Major European cities had huge problems with epidemics and overcrowded cemeteries, and the idea that decaying bodies were the source of contamination was born. As a result, the model of a crematorium presented at a fair in Venice in the second half of the 19th century led to the revival and spread of the custom of burning the dead. Christianity officially recognized cremation in 1971. (Photo from  Dia de los muertos” held in Vilnius, 2023-LRT-J.Stacevičus).