Whenever you’re planning to attend a funeral, it’s a good idea to get insight about the customs and traditions you’ll witness. With some preparation, you can attend any funeral and understand what is happening in front of and around you.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens During an Albanian Funeral?
- Albanian Burial and Legacy Traditions
- Albanian Funeral Etiquette
If you are invited to a funeral where Albanian customs, music, and other traditions are being held, it’s worth knowing more about the culture originating from the country situated in the Balkans in Eastern Europe. Whether you attend an Albanian funeral in Europe, America, or you attend a virtual funeral, the customs you’ll witness are similar and date back centuries.
Virtual funeral tip: If you're planning a virtual Albanian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like mourning, prayers, and traditional music, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.
What Happens During an Albanian Funeral?
While many of the traditions and rituals you find at an Albanian funeral are similar to any funeral in the west, there are several notable differences.
Differences between an Albanian and Albanian-American funeral
The types of traditions you witness at an Albanian funeral will likely be varied depending on whether you’re witnessing an Albanian funeral in Albania or an Albanian funeral in America. The first thing you need to determine, however, is what religion the Albanian family adheres to.
In Albania, citizens tend to be either followers of Islam, Catholicism, or Orthodox Christianity. From 1967 to 1990, Albania was officially declared to be an atheist country. After the fall of communism, the country was opened up to religious worship.
As a result of Albania’s varied influence from the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Ottoman Empire, those three religions dominate a majority of the belief system in Albania. The majority of Albanians declare Islam to be their religion. In most cases, religious beliefs are nominal but impact major events such as weddings and funerals.
Depending on the religion of an Albanian family, their loved one will be buried in a slightly different manner according to religious customs and traditions. This is true whether the Albanian funeral is in Albania or America.
Though the traditions listed in this article are true of most Albanian funerals, it’s important to recognize that not all families hold to the same traditions and you may experience differences that are not listed. Albanian customs not only change from Albanians living in their home country to America, but also vary depending on what region of Albania the family is from.
Order of service or program
In a traditional Albanian funeral service, the body of the deceased will be on view at the house of the deceased. Family members and mourners will arrive to mourn with the family prior to the burial.
If the family is Catholic, this would be when the wake occurs. If they are Orthodox or Islam, this time is similiar to a traditional viewing. Depending on the reason for death, the casket may not be opened during the wake or viewing.
Viewing or wake
In Albania, after the wake or viewing, pallbearers walk the casket to the gravesite in the event that the cemetery is closeby. If there is some distance, they will drive the casket to the gravesite where it will be unloaded by pallbearers and placed by the grave.
Arrival at the gravesite
Once everyone has arrived at the grave, the religious leader will say a few words or lead the attendants in a prayer. This is true of all three religions. After the prayer, the casket will be lowered into the grave.
Family members and friends will take turns placing a handful of dirt and sometimes flowers onto the casket or wrapped body.
Albanian funeral songs are significantly different from most funeral songs you’ll hear played or sung in the west.
Albania has long been known for their iso-polyphonic singing — a special form of singing that is thought to be mentioned in Homer’s epic The Odyssey. To perform iso-polyphonic music, a single singer will begin the mourning song. A line or two is taken from popular Albanian poetry that is fitting for the occasion. The lead singer will intone the two lines in a melody they choose. Once they’ve sung the two lines, the other singers will pick up on the melody and sing along, adding unique notes to round out the melody and harmony.
Iso-polyphonic singing is uniquely Albanian in culture, but is not practiced as regularly anymore. Very few singers still perform this but in areas where singers are available, they’ll be hired to perform at weddings and funerals. This type of song was incredibly popular and allowed the entire funeral party to join in on the singing and mourning over their loved one. Today, you’ll see this funeral tradition at select Albanian funerals in Albania.
Prayers are often said for the deceased during the wake or viewing in addition to the funeral service. Depending on the religion of the deceased and their family, you might hear traditional Catholic prayers, Orthodox prayers, or Islamic prayers. This is true for funerals in Albania and those in America.
Albania has a vibrant history of oral literature passed down from generation to generation. Poetry and storytelling are very much part of Albanian culture and date back from the earliest recorded history of Albanian life.
Readings that take place at a traditional Albanian funeral are almost always recited from memory and the texts are chosen by the reader or reciter for their meaning to the family or the deceased.
Duration of service
In Albania, the graveside burial service is often short and consists of a leader or clergy member sharing a few words about the deceased followed by a prayer for Islamic, Orthodox, and Catholic families. After the prayer, the body is lowered into the grave and those in attendance place handfuls of dirt on the casket or wrapped body. Designated friends and family members then finish covering the body with dirt and the service is concluded.
In America, attendees will place a handful of dirt onto the casket, but cemetery workers — not friends and family — finish burying the deceased loved one.
Before, during, and after the funeral, in traditional Albanian funerals, you will experience the presence of professional mourners. Depending on the region of Albania, these might be men or women who mourn and wail for a person’s passing. In Albania, it is traditionally thought that the professional mourners not only help bring focus to the sadness of the event, but to the tragedy if the deceased has had a particularly tragic death such as from drowning, a vehicular accident, or a shooting.
Though professional mourners are still hired in Albania, this is a custom you’re not as likely to find in American-Albanian funerals. Depending on how “western” the Albanian family has become, they may prefer to adopt western funeral traditions altogether.
In Albania, you may find that the family members of the deceased are inconsolable before, during, and after the funeral. This expression of grief is not only acceptable but centuries old. Weeping and wailing at funerals is a cultural tradition that goes back to the earliest records of Albanian culture.
Albanian Burial and Legacy Traditions
As with most cultures around the world, Albanians use religion and traditions to guide their approach to funeral-related items such as cremation, burial, and length of time for mourning.
Views on cremation and burial
Traditionally, Albanians did not cremate their dead, but instead buried them. This practice is still largely true to this day, both in Albania and in the United States. Depending on how integrated into the culture of the west a family has become, cremation might be considered as an option. Most of the time, however, burial of the body is preferred.
In some areas of Albania that are traditionally Eastern Orthodox, bodies used to be exhumed after three years and the bones placed in a bone house. This tradition is practiced less frequently today and almost not at all if the burial takes place in America.
Mourning and remembering the dead
Most Albanians, regardless of religious background, hold to a forty-day period of mourning for the deceased. During this period, friends and family members gather at the house of the deceased to mourn the loss of their loved one and friend.
There will occasionally be periods of mourning and remembrance during this time that are held at the gravesite, as well.
Albanian Funeral Etiquette
As with any culture, Albanians have their own rules for funeral etiquette. If you’ve ever been to a Catholic funeral, you’ll likely find that you’re familiar with the forms of etiquette found at an Albanian funeral.
As with most funerals around the world, attire for family members and guests alike consists of dark clothing. In traditional or Muslim Albanian funerals, the women will often wear a black headscarf, in addition to their other dark-colored clothing.
Offering condolences to the family members and friends should occur during the viewing or wake. During a wake, family members will stand by the door in line according to their kinship to the deceased. All visiting friends and family are expected to express their condolences one-by-one to each person, starting with the next of kin and proceeding down the line.
It is also appropriate to offer condolences through a card or phone call if you cannot make it to the wake or funeral in person.
Mourning in Albanian Culture
No matter how different a culture may seem, you’re sure to experience similarities in burial and funeral traditions around the world. It’s okay if you’re not familiar with all the customs you see. The most important thing you can do is show up and support the grieving family.
- “Largest Religious Groups of Albania.” International Data, The Association of Religion Data Archives, 2015. thearda.com/internationalData/countries/Country_3_1.asp.
- “Death Rituals in Albania.” Antrocom, Online Journal of Anthropology, 2010. www.antrocom.net/upload/sub/antrocom/060210/10-Antrocom.pdf
- “Funeral of Albanians Drowned in Sinking of Refugee Boat.” AP Archive, Youtube, 21 July 2015. youtube.com/watch?v=Xn6Rmwb9KfM.
- Zaphiropoulos, Hannah. “Meet the Albanian Singers Carrying on an Ancient Choral Tradition.” Albania, The Calvert Journal, 5 September 2018. calvertjournal.com/features/show/10628/albania-ancient-polyphonic-music-mixtape-dan-shutt.