Breakfast at the Cemetery

In the first Sunday after Easter Ukrainians honor their dead relatives with food and alcohol. This strong pagan tradition still exists on most of the territory in Ukraine in spite of disapproval by early Christian authorities.

Breakfast at the Kushuhum cemetery in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.

The tradition is called “Radonytsya”(connected with happiness). It was transformed from the cult of ancestors. But it was part of the cycle of spring holidays. Pagans believed that the dead enjoyed when their relatives come to their graves and remember them with joyfulness, songs and narratives about their life on the earth.

When Christianity came to Kyivska Rus’ in the tenth century it tried to suppress these pagan traditions but it was so strong among people that it proved to be difficult. The church decided to compromise. One day was chosen in spring after Easter and it was to be used for the honoring of the dead instead of a full cycle. However, there was one condition, the dead would be honored without joyful celebration.

Homeless animals often visit the cemetery hoping for a few bits of food.

Over the years people have mixed these cults and traditions and now in Ukraine the week after Easter is used for honoring dead ancestors. Each region of the country has a different day set aside for it. It might be Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Saturday. These days Radovnytsya is called “Provody”, “Pomynky”, “Hrobky” or “Didy”. It depends upon the region of country.

Alex Voropay the author of the ethnographic essay “The Customs of Our People” quotes from church vocabulary of 1773 year that “he who wants to remember his dead relatives should bring to the grave some wine, beer, pies, cakes. After rite which is leading by priest this person should take a glass of wine or cup of beer and pour out a half of liquid on the grave and the rest drink by himself.”

A traditional Ukrainian breakfast at the cemetery in the village of Rozumivka in the Zaporizhzhya oblast.

Also stories from the 19th and 20th century, as Voropay noticed, indicate that when members of family come in the cemetery they place three or four eggs on the grave. After the funeral service the host breaks eggs by graves cross and gives them to his grandfather. He says names of their deceased relatives for his grandfather. Then the whole family sits around graves in a circle for dinner. The head of the family recites: “Here is my family, here is my mother, and one time I will rest here!”

Colored boiled eggs are a tradition for Easter. These eggs were dyed by soaking in onion peel and vinegar.

The day of “Hrobky” is the most crowded day in the cemetery in village of Rozumivka in the Zaporizhzhya oblast. This is an important time for all families to come together and honor their dead relatives. People come to the cemetery in the morning 8–11 a.m.

A local newspaper is used as a tablecloth.

“I think that eating and drinking here on this day is not a sin,” says Mr. Olexander. “It’s a tradition. We do it because our parents and grandparents honored their dear people in this way.” Olexander came with his sisters and brother to honor their father and aunt.

Mrs. Nadya brought a bottle of her husband’s favorite water and placed it on his grave.

The hood of a car becomes an improvised breakfast table in the Kusuhum cemetery in the Zaporizhzhya oblast.

She prepared a specially selected assortment of food and laid it out on the improvised table. There are potato pancakes and liver as well as Easter cakes and small bags of sweets and cookies. There is a custom that the closest relative of the dead person should offer these packages from the entire family and place them on the grave.

Children with bags look for packages of sweets on the graves.

On the day of “Hrobky” children usually go through cemetery and pick up the sweets and cookies that they find.

A girl holds a basket of sweets and cookies.

Mrs. Olya, 82, came with her children to remember her late husband.

“It’s not so important for me to eat or drink here. I come because I miss him. What is interesting in the middle of the 20th century, when we were young, we went to the lake or river and had our breakfast there. Usually we came here in the days only for cleaning the plot around the grave and for bringing flowers”, said Mrs. Olya.

A traditional Ukrainian breakfast at the cemetery in Rozumivka.
Members of a family treat their dead relatives with that food and drink which they liked in life. They even put cigarettes on the gravestones so that they can “smoke together” with the spirits of their kindred.

The woman makes a separate dish for her husband and sprinkles the grave with a glass of vodka. She believes that he will get this food and drink in “another world” and will be pleased.