[T]: Funerals…I hated those things. They’re usually first held in whoever dies…their house. There’s usually a casket, usually an open casket in the living room and everyone and their mother literally has to show up or else you’re the most disgraceful thing known to humankind so there’s like hundreds of people and you know that someone’s died because you walk or drive past the street and there’s hundreds of people going in and out of the apartment building.
[Me]: Is it everybody in the community or just everybody that ever knew the person?
[T]: Everyone that ever knew the person basically…word gets around. And then…you have to typically wear black, you go in straight faced and when you walk into the living room you have to…there’s like all the women that were closely related to the deceased person sitting in a circle around the open casket and then you have to walk in a circle around the casket and look in…which is really traumatizing and then you say your condolences to everyone and typically in like more the villages and the outer areas of Georgia, the women weep loudly…that’s another thing they audibly weep the whole time and the louder they weep the more it shows that they loved the person. After you do that round you turn around and leave and go outside and usually people stand outside and have a drink or two and then they leave.
Day two of celebrations is when you have a huge feast, but that’s a little more intimate. It’s usually only like 100 people as opposed to like a thousand.
[Me]: Is there anything that you characteristically make for this feast? Like a food staple? Does everyone bring something or does the family of the deceased make everything?
[T]: Typically all of our feasts are the same cuisine…just a lot of typical Georgian food: a lot of meats, fish, grains, because grains are tied to the earth and holiness, a lot of greens and spinach and nuts…our typical feast tradition is that is has to look as though no one’s touched it so it has to be a lot of food…like mountains of food and especially when you’re honoring the dead it has to look like no one’s touched it so it’s a sign of respect.
[Me]: Do any of these funeral rites have official titles or are they just understood to be done when someone dies?
[T]: Oh yeah the viewing is called გასვენება [pronounced “gasveneba”] which kind of translates to “letting them rest” or “resting them away” and then…oh no, the first part is called პანაშვიდი [pronounced “panashvidi”] and the second part is called გასვენება [pronounced “gasveneba”] which is when they take them…there’s a bunch of people that drive to the church and then to the graveyard where they’re buried. Part 3 is the feast which is called the ქელეხი pronounced “qelekhi”], don’t know what that translates to but that’s what it’s called.
გასვენება – pronunciation: gasveneba – literal translation: “letting them rest” – English equivalent: wake
პანაშვიდი – pronunciation: panashvidi – literal translation: ? – English equivalent: funeral
ქელეხი – pronunciation: qelekhi – literal translation: ? – English equivalent: funeral feast
T is a 19 year old USC student who grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia. Prior to the “official” start to the interview, I asked if she had any Georgian-specific wedding, funeral, or other ritual traditions that she would be open to sharing with me, and the above conversation ensued.
There’s a lot of insight into Georgian culture from these funeral traditions. From the expectation of women weeping loudly at the wake to the abundant feast, it’s clear that the community places a lot of emphasis on paying respect to the deceased in traditional ways. The way that T describes the foods present at the qelekhi (ქელეხი) also speak to the overarching themes the culture and community value: connections to the Earth and holiness. T is a close friend of mine, and from other conversations we’ve had I know that outside of the capital city of Tbilisi, the villages are rather poor, very religious, and close-knit—these funeral traditions absolutely reflect that fact. Funerals represent, for a lot of cultures, a transition in identity for the deceased as they leave their place amongst the living and join the dead; I would have to do more research to be sure, but these traditions seem to indicate that in Georgian culture, people who have died are still very much a part of the community—just in a different way.