Ablution

Many pre-burial actions, apart from their practical necessity, are performed to comply with ancient rituals. Death was visualized as a journey to the next world while the ablution and the dressing of the dead and other actions that prepare him/her for the burial, as a sort of preparation for a long trip.

The religious and magic nature of the ablution was emphasized by the fact that it was performed by a special category of people, the ablutioners. This profession often became the lot of old virgins and widowers who already “had no sin”, i.e. intimate relations with people of the opposite sex. If a girl remained unmarried for a long time, she was often frightened with the prospect of ending up “washing the dead”. The damsels who “gathered” the deceased and read the Psalter over them were wearing dark clothes. For their work they received the under- and upper-wear of the deceased. If there were no specialized ablutioners, it was long the custom to engage in this occupation people who were not related to the deceased.

According to a church instruction, a mother was not supposed to ablute her dead child since she would invariably weep over him, which was disapproved as a deviation from the belief in the soul’s immortality. According to the Christian faith, a child acquires a life in paradise, which is why his death should not be wept over. Popular belief has it that the mother’s tears “burn the child.”

In the past, ablution was a rite associated with mysticism. It was performed on the floor at the hut’s threshold. The dead man was laid down on the straw with his legs stretched toward the oven. The body was abluted twice or thrice with warm water and soap from a clay pot, usually new. The accessories of the ablution, i.e. the pot, water, soap, and comb, received the properties of the dead man and his deadly power. Those had to be disposed of shortly. The water used for washing the deceased was called “dead”. It was poured out into a corner of the yard where there were no plants and where people did not walk. Thus, a healthy man would not tread on it. The same was done to water with which tableware was washed after the funeral repast. The same lot awaited the clay ablution pots. They were taken out to a ravine, to an edge of the forest, or to a crossroads where usually stood a cross or a pillar or chapel. There they were broken or just left behind. Those actions sought to prevent the return of the dead, to stop him from “haunting” and “scaring” the living people. Such places were popularly believed to be full of dreadful ghosts. Few daredevils had courage enough to pass through them on a pitch dark night. The ablution accessories’ ability to “mortify” living things was used in the art of harmful magic; for instance,  evil wizards used the “dead” water to blight the fate of newly-weds, a piece of the shroud was driven by carpenters into the jamb while building the house when ill luck was wished to the host they abhorred. The soap applied in abluting the dead body was then used in domestic medicine for a different purpose, e.g. for stamping out or reducing objectionable phenomena. Thus,  wives gave it to their quarrelsome husbands in order to “appease their resentment,” and girls washed their hands with it to protect the skin from shrivelling.

Nowadays, ablution normally takes place at a morgue. However, there are still, especially in villages, old women engaged in ablution. Many features of this old rite are now forgotten. For example, few remember the magic capabilities of the ablution accoutrements.