When people die, they should be buried with dignity and a memorial service should be held for them. Performing appropriate rituals guarantees that the dead are separated from their earthly communities and their souls are equipped to travel to the other world. The funeral customs include several different elements of folklore: laments, funeral speeches, sacred chants and funeral songs.
A funeral in the village of Dobrów, Koło Poviat, photo by B. Linette, 1974. Source: Józef Burszta Digital Archive
Funeral songs are performed during the vigil held over the body of the person who has died. The three-day ancient and archaic ritual of vigil and song, called ‘empty nights’, is still performed in many parts of Poland, including Podlasie and Kashubia (Kaszuby). Here you can watch Oswoić śmierć czyli rzecz o pustych nocach (Coming to terms with death, or Empty Nights), a documentary about this ritual produced by the Mazowiecki Instytut Kultury (Mazovia Institute of Culture):
Other than singing the funeral songs, ‘empty nights’ also featured saying the rosary and the prayer Eternal Rest. In more recent times, normally the songs have only been sung on the night before the burial rather than for three continuous nights. Occasionally, the vigil might even be shorter than that, taking no more than the last few hours before the funeral.
If it so happens that death
Will strike the farmer’s household,
The dead man’s brothers, sisters and peers,
Light the gromnice candles all around.
They buy the coffin and whisper the prayers
They express their grief and sing the songs.
Loneliness, sorrow and yearning
Sadness and solemn calmness of the grave,
They have been orphaned now –
Amongst the joyous and boisterous life
There comes solemnity of death and its dreams of eternity,
They call that night the Empty Night.
Mirosław Dobrzański, Pusta noc (Empty Night) (1909).
Songs and funeral singers
The funeral singer (the person is sometimes called a kolator in traditional Polish nomenclature) is an ‘intermediary’ – he recounts the ‘last words’ of the dead people to their relatives – the funeral songs are intended to help the dead people part with their families (and vice versa) and belong to the ritual of passing. Normally there was one funeral singer in a village who enjoyed the authority and appreciation of the local community. Larger villages, e.g. in Kashubia, employed entire ensembles of ‘empty nights’ singers.
The songs they performed varied in origins. Some of the traditional funeral folk songs had their roots in age-old church songs (sometimes going back to the sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth century), while others exhibit a typical folk character. There are different types of songs sung for this occasion: prayer songs for the souls of the dead – farewell songs and requests for accepting the dead in heaven (addressed to God, Jesus, Virgin Mary or angels), as well as warning songs with a moralistic content for the living. Some of the songs express hope in eternal life. Professor Adamowski compiled a list of the most popular funeral songs, which includes Już idę do grobu smutnego ciemnego (The sad, dark grave is near), Skończyła mi się droga (My journey is over) and Zaczynam lament więźniów jęczących (Now I am singing the sobbing prisoners’ lament). Zmarły człowiecze z tobą się żegnamy (Oh dead man, we bid you farewell), another popular song portrays a dead person departing from amongst the living:
Oh dead man! we bid you farewell,
You go back to the soil, that which once was a mother to you,
Soon, dear brother/sister, we’ll see each other again,
Oh God! this dead man/woman visited Your house,
A dead man and his family, a vigil over the body of Mr Mieczysław Mazur, Oziornoje, Kazakhstan, photo by J. Stempin, 1991. Source: Józef Burszta Digital Archive.
The funeral songs usually consist of several verses and hence they were usually sung from prayer books (handwritten notebooks). Such a notebook belonged to the funeral singer (sometimes the notebook and the job were handed down from father to son). The owners of the notebooks were not usually particularly willing to lend them for copying (in exceptional cases, they demanded they be returned the following day). After all, it was impossible to tell exactly when the funeral singer would be called to do his duty (in which the songbook was an essential accessory).
The ‘empty nights’ usually required the presence of the elders, relatives, neighbours and friends. They gathered in the dead person’s house late in the evening and stayed there until the following morning. They kept vigil, prayed and sang over the dead person’s body, traditionally lying in an open coffin placed in the middle of the room. The participants were served bread and rolls, coffee and sometimes also beer or vodka.
In the olden days, amongst the Kashubians and Slovinians (Słowińcy, in the north of Poland), there was a custom of inviting the villagers for the funeral via a messenger. The Slovinian messenger would be dressed up, with black ribbons tied around his hat. He would carry a walking stick (or a staff), his trademark attribute, with which he would walk from house to house announcing a specially phrased invitation. The Kashubian messenger would simply utter the phrase: „Follow the body, please”.
Nowadays, it is becoming more and more common for the ‘empty nights’ to be detached from their natural environment and transplanted onto… the theatre stage. In 2014, Grupa Laboratorium Pieśni (Song Laboratory Group) put on Puste noce – pieśni, które już się kończą (Empty Nights – songs which are no longer sung). The show was devised and directed by Alina Jurczyszyn. Listen to an excerpt:
Traditional music was arranged for the purpose of the show by Kamil Bigus and Laboratorium Pieśni. The premiere took place at Klub ŻAK in Gdańsk on 30 November 2014. It was followed by the CD album Puste noce (Empty Nights).
The CD album by Laboratorium Pieśni with funeral songs from the show Puste noce (Empty Nights). See the source.
Funeral songs have also been presented on stage by the duo Grochocki & Odorowicz. A grief counsellor by profession, Paweł Grochocki is also a singer who occasionally sings at funerals (he is a pupil of Jan Wnuk from Zdziłowice). He performs on stage with violist Paweł Odorowicz, with whom he won the Grand Prix at the Twentieth Folk Music Competition ‘Nowa Tradycja’ (‘New Tradition’).
Paweł Grochocki conducted workshops and then founded funeral song ensembles, Lubelski Komitet Pożegnalny (Lublin Farewell Committee) and Krakowski Komitet Pożegnalny (Kraków Farewell Committee), to perform songs at funerals.
The ‘empty nights’ theme is gaining widespread recognition. Funeral songs in their stage versions have also been performed by Zespół Wokalny (Vocal Ensemble) ‘Discantus’ featuring Adam Tański on pump organ or singer Adam Strug with the ensemble Kwadrofonik. The artists have prepared Requiem ludowe (Folk Requiem), where they sing texts from the Pelplin Songbook. The NINAteka website features a concert recorded on 30 March 2015 at the church of the Jesuit Fathers in Poznań.