Polish Funerals Explained: Beliefs About Death, Traditions & Etiquette

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Death, no matter how displeasing, is an unavoidable event. It is the ultimate truth of life and affects every person on the face of the Earth no matter where they live or their station in life. However, every culture maintains varying attitudes towards death and each has different customs and traditions that surround it.

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In Poland, the death of a loved one is mourned ritually, and there is a significant display of sadness. It’s very rare to find someone who is calm and smiling or trying to remember happy days spent with loved ones.

COVID-19 tip: Pandemics, illness, and other issues can cause guests to miss a traditional funeral. You can allow faraway guests to attend by hosting a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs. You can adapt many of these traditions, like songs, prayers, and even traditional funeral food, 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.

Polish Beliefs About Death and Dying

Death is part of the daily discourse in both Poland’s rural and urban areas. The Polish think that death is a lean, tall woman who wears a white sheet and holds a scythe.

No human can stop her, but animals can see her and can warn others of her presence. They also hold the belief that it is better if the death is quick, painless, and from an illness.

» MORE: It's stressful to handle a loved one's legal and financial affairs when they're gone. Follow this checklist for guidance.

 

What Happens During a Polish Funeral?

In Poland, death needs to be pronounced by a doctor. The body remains in the place of death for approximately two hours. After this, the body has to be transported to the morgue.

The certificate of death is provided by the local government and is necessary in order to complete all the bureaucratic procedures. If a body is not present, such in the case of death in an accident like a plane crash, the person is pronounced dead after 6 months through a court decision. 

In the case of a missing person, the person is pronounced dead after 10 years. In urban areas, funeral homes take care of everything related to a person’s funeral. In rural areas, however, there is no need to go to a funeral home and pay for services. All the expenses for the funeral are covered by the state, along with a special benefit for poor families.

Klepsydra: death notices

Klepsydra are special death notices printed in the newspaper, displayed in the local church, and placed on the house of the deceased. If the family doesn’t want to receive condolences, a particular sentence, “prosimy o nieskladaine kondolengji” is printed in the death notice.

Polish people either bury their dead or have them cremated. However, cremation is still not very popular, and scattering the ashes is still illegal in Poland.

Funeral ceremony

There are three parts to a funeral ceremony in Poland: the wake, the procession, and the feast.

The wake

In a Polish funeral ceremony, similar to a Catholic funeral service, there are three steps. The first step is holding a wake. The body of the deceased is placed in their own house or at a relative's home. Family, friends, and neighbors gather for 3 days and nights in order to pray for the soul of the deceased.

The wake involves wailing and singing so that bad spirits stay away. In Catholic homes, you could expect to hear Catholic funeral songs and hymns being sung. In urban areas, the wake is often not held, and the body is taken directly from the morgue to the church for the remembrance service.

Funeral procession 

The next step is a procession. During this event, the coffin is carried to the local church, usually on foot. Here, a remembrance service takes place. The coffin is then carried to the cemetery in another procession.

After reaching the cemetery, religious duties are performed. If the person is a Catholic, you’d probably see a Catholic funeral reading taking place. Then, the coffin is lowered into the ground. A handful of soil is thrown on the coffin by each mourner. A nameplate or cross with a nameplate is placed on the top of the grave, followed by flowers and wreaths.

Funeral feast

There is a post-funeral ceremony in which people have a meal and talk about the deceased. Mourners will wear a black ribbon pinned to the clothing suffices and eat Kasza, a sort of porridge, along with honey and vodka. 

Polish Death and Burial Traditions

There are numerous traditions that the Polish have when it comes to death and burial. Let’s take a quick look at some of these fascinating beliefs.

Putting the seats upside down

This is a Jewish tradition that found its way to the Polish lands. According to this tradition, the soul of the dead person doesn’t want to leave the Earth and wants to stay here for as long as possible.

Keeping the seats upright makes it very hard for the soul to leave the body. Thus, all the seats in the house of the deceased have to be turned upside down.

Covering mirrors

Covering mirrors after death is another Jewish Tradition that Polish people follow. Polish people believe that it is obligatory to cover up the mirrors in the house.

Otherwise, the soul of the deceased would stay inside the mirror and will haunt the living in the form of a scary reflection.

Decorating the door

The Polish place small crosses, black bows, images of saints, gold jewelry, branches of birch, and more on the door of the house to commemorate the deceased.

Ringing the bell

In Poland, the “Loretan Bell” or the Bell of Santa Barbara has been popular since the 16th century. Pilgrims brought tiny bells as souvenirs from the holy city of Loreto. Large versions of these bells are placed all over Poland and are looked upon as symbols of protection from thunderstorms.

When someone dies, The Loretan Bell is rung as a symbolic announcement of death. Moreover, people believe that it scares the evil spirits and demons away from the soul of the deceased.

Putting a candle in the deceased’s hands

Gromnica is a special candle that found its way into various Catholic ceremonies in the 12th century. Since then, this candle has been used during numerous ceremonies such as baptism, communion, marriage, and even death.

Polish people tend to place a candle in the hands of the deceased in order to help the soul find a path towards the afterlife. 

Stopping clocks

This is another Polish custom in which clocks are stopped immediately after the person breathes their last breath.

This custom symbolizes that the time has ended for the dead, and a new period of existence has started, one that isn’t bound by time. If the clocks are not stopped, it means that you are inviting the soul of the deceased to remain in the world. 

The gown of the dead

Another Polish Tradition is to dress the body in the gown of the dead. This is known as smiertelnica. In the Medieval Era, the gown was made from thick, white linen. Nowadays, people bury the dead in modest suits and dresses instead of white linen gowns.

Coins are also placed in the mouth, hand, and the left armpit so that the soul of the deceased will not return. 

Opening doors and windows

When an individual is dying, they are usually placed on the ground, and all the doors and windows of the house are opened so the soul may go to heaven easily. 

Nailing a piece of cloth on the door

When a person dies, a piece of cloth is nailed to the door of the house. If the deceased is an older married man or woman, a black cloth is placed there. If it’s a young girl, a white cloth is nailed up, and a green cloth is nailed if the deceased is a young boy.

Polish Funeral Etiquette

There are a few things that you need to keep in mind when you are attending a Polish funeral. Let’s take a look at them. 

What to wear

People who are over the age of 18 are supposed to wear black mourning attire. Children are not expected to wear black, but they can do so.

Mourning is symbolized by wearing black and by abstaining from dancing, singing, and participating in weddings and other joyous occasions. In case of the death of a partner or a parent, the mourning period lasts for one year. If a grandchild, mother-in-law, or father-in-law dies, the mourning period is six months. If a sibling dies, the mourning period lasts for three months. 

Offering condolences

When it comes to offering condolences, it is customary for Poles to approach close relatives of the deceased after the funeral. You can say “Proszę przyjąć Moje kondolencje,” which means, “Please accept my condolences,” or “Moje najszczersze wyrazy współczucia,” which means, “My deepest sympathies.” 

After this, it is best to leave the mourners alone for a while so that they can have a time of solitude to deal with their loss.

You might also consider sending flowers or a gift to the family or the deceased's service. The following would be appropriate for a Polish funeral (you can order them from Amazon):

Polish Death Beliefs and Traditions  

Polish traditions reflect a mix of Western, Catholic, and Jewish customs. Though the mourning attire and the funeral are similar to much of the Western world, Catholic funeral readings and Jewish lore contribute to specific burial customs to this day. If you ever attend a Polish person’s funeral, you’ll be able to see how many of these traditions are followed by the family.


Sources

  1. Roberts, Jefferey and Doroslych, Klasa. “All Saints - All Souls Day,” Polish Traditions, Polish Genealogical Society of America, Copyright 1994. pgsa.org/polish-traditions/.
  2. Pietkiewicz, I. “Burial Rituals and Cultural Changes in the Polish Community,” Academia, Academia, Copyright 2012. academia.edu/2277040/Burial_rituals_and_cultural_changes_in_the_polish_community_a_qualitative_study

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