Today’s post deals with Czech funeral etiquette and some of the issues you may face if you find yourself attending a funeral here. This post comes from the recent loss of my sister-in-law, Světlana. Světlana fought a long battle with cancer. She went through quite a lot in the last 3-4 years, but now she’s in a much better place—she’s no longer suffering. We have this assurance from God.
No Idea about Czech Funerals and the Required Etiquette
Světlana's was the first funeral I’ve attended in the Czech Republic, since moving here just over ten years ago. Being a foreigner married to a Czech, I always try to adapt to the ways of being and doing here, as much as possible. However, I had no idea about Czech funerals or the required etiquette, and there wasn’t much information online. Jiří was the best source of information, so I’ll share with you what he told me about Czech funerals in general. My goal is to help other foreigners with basic funeral etiquette--those who may need or want to attend a Czech funeral. But first, we’ll take a look at cemeteries here and grave rentals.
Cemeteries can seem like creepy places--as they’re often portrayed in horror films. I always had a fear of cemeteries when I was a little girl. As an adult, I’ve been OK with cemeteries, but they were still not my favorite places to visit. My feelings towards cemeteries finally changed after visiting some of the very old cemeteries here and in other parts of Europe.
Czech cemeteries are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. They aren’t creepy—just very old. You’ll find headstones, graves covered by slabs and with ornate headstones, beautiful mausoleums, etc. Every holiday you’ll see some family member tending their family graves—cleaning them, laying fresh flowers and even leaving candles. One of my favorite Czech holidays (as in holy day) is Všech svatých (All Saints Day). On this day, the cemeteries are aglow with beautiful flowers and candles.
Renting Grave Plots
Just as in cemeteries around the world, Czech cemeteries offer spaces for urns, traditional burials, and also special sections where ashes can be scattered. This is normal and understood. However, there was one new idea that I encountered with Czech burials (which may be common in Europe)—it came as quite a shock. The shock was learning that you don’t buy a grave plot. Instead, a plot is somehow chosen, and then the family of the dearly departed pays “rent” for this grave as long as they live or are able to pay.
Once the family or responsible persons no longer pay rent, the grave is opened and the remains are removed, to be cremated in common with other remains of those whose families no longer pay to rent a plot. This whole idea came as quite a shock to me when I first moved here. (Back home, you buy a plot and it’s yours forever, unless the cemetery is moved, then you’re moved with it—it most cases). Once the remains are removed the entire grave is re-used, possibly including the headstone and any slab that covers the grave.
While this can be shocking for some foreigners, after living here for just over a decade, you begin to understand the pragmatic thinking of Czech people. This country is small—there’s only so much land available to use for cemeteries. So renting a plot makes sense. However, I’m not comfortable with the thought of loved ones being put into a common cremation once the rent’s not paid.
The best option may be to just go ahead and opt for cremation when a loved one dies. Cremation is quite common here—for atheists, Christians and others. The main reasons for choosing cremation are the costs of the funeral and grave rental, and the fact that it’s hard to find space in many cemeteries in this country.
For cremations you can rent a spot in the cemetery for the urn, or you can keep it at home. There’s also the option of discretely spreading the ashes in a favorite place of the deceased. If you keep the urn and/or spread the ashes, you won’t have to worry about paying the grave rent. I’m not sure if there are fees involved for spreading ashes in a public or national park, as I wasn’t able to find this information online (at least in English).
Funeral Dress Code for Men and Women
The funeral dress code is fairly simple and applies to everyone going to a funeral—natives and foreigners of both genders, and it even applies to kids. Everyone comes in their Sunday-best, though casual office attire is OK, too. Jeans are frowned upon, as are dirty shoes, etc. Men, women and children should dress in dark clothes—black is best, however navy blue also works. For my sister-in-law’s funeral, I wanted to wear a white shirt under a black sweater with black dress slacks, but Jiří said that wasn’t acceptable. There should be no white or other colors. So, I was dressed in black from head to toe (aside from my red hair).
Men can wear a nice shirt and slacks; some opt for a suit, though that’s not always necessary. Women can wear dresses, skirts or dress slacks with blouses, etc.—all must be dark. Shoes should be in good repair and clean. I can’t stress this enough—be sure your shoes are clean. If you go anywhere (other than hiking or working on the farm or in the garden) with dirty shoes, people will see you as lazy, sloppy and careless. You don’t want to give anyone this impression, especially at formal occasions such as weddings and funerals. (You also need clean shoes for job interviews, etc.)
Funeral Flowers and Wreaths
The type of arrangement you bring depends on how close you were to the one who passed away and your budget. Typical floral arrangements include a bouquet, a wreath or single flowers. The most common flowers for Czech funerals are calla lilies, roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. Flower colors will depend on the season and what’s available. You can choose to buy one rose and lay it on the coffin or in the grave, depending on the type of funeral service. The only rule is that a bouquet (I’m not sure if this applies to wreaths) must have an even number of flowers (unless you chose just one rose). This rule is strictly applied by Czechs. You can choose real or artificial flowers, though real flowers are often more appreciated.
Jiří and I ordered a wreath with a base of evergreens, with white daisy-type flowers and white carnations that were tipped in a deep mauve. The wreath’s ribbon matched the mauve of the carnations. The florist asked what we would like printed on the ribbon in gold leaf. Jiří said, “Farewell, beloved sister (fill in the name here).” I was horrified (not at all the appropriate text for funeral arrangement ribbons back where I come from)! However, Jiří explained that they say this here and that it’s not disrespectful or hurtful.
One note—we went to a florist and ordered the wreath with no problems. However, we had to it pick up the morning of the funeral and take it ourselves. I’m not sure if this is how it works in larger cities, such as Prague. The wreath was a good size and turned out beautifully. Thankfully family members gave us a ride to my sister-in-law's service—we didn’t have to manage the wreath on public transport.
Funeral and Memorial Services
Czech funeral and memorial services vary widely—as in the U.S. and other countries. The type of service will depend on whether or not the deceased was a Christian, their own requests for the service, etc. You’ll find traditional funerals, with an open or closed casket and burial service, or memorial services only. It varies widely.
My Sister-in-Law’s Memorial Service
My sister-in-law, Světlana, had asked to be cremated, so my brother-in-law arranged a Christian memorial service for her in a chapel provided by the crematorium. The day was beautiful—it started out cloudy, but later turned sunny, while the temperature remained cold. The chapel was decorated in a Christian manner, with beautiful stained glass windows and a very pretty altar in the front. The service was led by my brother-in-law’s priest.
My sister-in-law’s casket was placed directly in front of the altar, with tall white candles at the head and foot of the casket. They had also placed other candles around the casket—it was all quite pretty and very formal. There was some music playing—some songs that had deep meaning for my sister-in-law. The songs were by Queen, Enya and some others—very pretty and respectful songs, which struck us all to the heart.
As the family started to enter the chapel, we each had to place our flower arrangements around the casket. There was a lady guiding everyone, suggesting where to place the flowers—she was very respectful. After everyone had placed their flowers, the scene was surprisingly beautiful—a rainbow of colors and types of flowers—just beautiful. It looked like a garden with Světlana’s casket in the middle of all the flowers, with the candles all around.
The service itself was about 30 minutes long. The priest gave a beautiful message—he’d been close to my brother-in-law and Světlana during her battle with cancer. One note—when the service started, it was cloudy; but as the service commenced, the sun came out and brilliantly lit up the window showing the risen Christ. So beautiful and moving!
When it was over, we all slowly left the chapel and headed outside. It was chilly—we stood in knots of 3-5 people, softly talking as we waited for my brother-in-law and his parents-in-law. There was no graveside service since my sister-in-law was to be cremated. My brother-in-law will later take her ashes to be interred in a cemetery in the town where Světlana grew up.
After the Service
Once the service was over, our family went out to have lunch together in a restaurant nearby. It was a small place and had great food. We had a really nice visit, in spite of the reason for our gathering. We all toasted Světlana. Since then, our family has tried to be a support for my brother-in-law as he grieves.
I have to say that my sister-in-law’s memorial service was beautiful—as beautiful as any other Christian service I’ve attended back home. According to Jiří, this funeral wasn’t typical for here—many people are atheists and funeral services are usually for family and friends to have closure—to say their farewells. There’s no talk or thought of a soul living on, etc. However, it is interesting to note that even if someone claims to be an atheist, they may still opt for a Christian funeral or memorial service. These services are usually done in the Roman Catholic tradition, as this is the most prominent church in the Czech Republic.
My sister-in-law’s passing has left a hole in our family; however God has given us the assurance that Světlana is with Him. God was very present in the midst of this family—His presence was so strong at the service—I can’t describe it—there are no words, but He was there with each of us. He continues to comfort and console our family and my brother-in-law. God is good.
This is a short take on funeral etiquette in the Czech Republic and the types of funeral issues foreigners may face here. The information I’ve provided is only a small bit from my one experience with funerals here. Still, I hope this basic information may help others who have to attend funerals here.
That's all for today!
Have a great day!
RIP Světlana--you're loved and missed.