My grandfather meticulously planned his own burial — then COVID-19 happened
We 'were unable to give him the death he had wanted,’ says Eva Voinigescu
When I was visiting my grandparents in Craiova, Romania, last year, my grandma showed me and my mom the suit my grandpa put aside for his burial.
She and my mom argued about whether grandpa had really chosen that suit — one my grandma and I liked the looks of — or a different suit, which my mom suspected he'd actually chosen.
My grandpa, meanwhile, was still very much alive and living in a long-term care facility, where he moved to in 2019 after years of living with Alzheimer's. Planning for his burial, including picking out what clothing he would be buried in, was his way of dealing with the fear and uncertainty of dying.
He's not the only one to approach death this way.
Romania is a very religious country. Preparing for burial is a part of everyday life and can get pretty elaborate. It involves not only choosing clothes, but also buying gravesites and inscribing headstones with everything — except the date of death — literally decades in advance.
The regularity with which death comes up in conversation in Romania is different from what I'm used to, having grown up in Canada. People plan their burials in detail and discuss these plans with their families long before death comes, so that when it does, they can pass into the afterlife on their own terms.
Unfortunately for my grandpa, contracting — and eventually dying from — COVID-19 meant that all those plans had to change.
Years in the planning
My mom's parents' grave has been ready for more than 20 years. There's a headstone with a photo of them on a ceramic tile. There's even an inscription, with their names and dates of birth — everything up and ready to go.
But what's crazier is that it's not their only one. In fact, they have two more plots, one in each of their hometowns.
They got the first one when my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. It's in the village where my grandma grew up. Her second cousin is a priest there and the plot is right next to his. Apparently this makes it prime real estate because the site will be well cared for.
But once, while my grandma was visiting us in Canada, my grandpa went ahead and prepped a headstone for the two of them, without my grandma's input.
"In the first place, it's an ugly photo," she said. "And he wrote: 'Here rests Stefanescu Ion and Tanța'. My name isn't Tanța, it's Constantina."
Tanța (pronounced Tantsa), is a nickname for Constantina, but my grandma really hates it. She thinks it lacks class.
And the third grave? That's in my grandpa's home village, in the same plot where his parents are buried.
That came about after my grandparents had a fight. My grandpa was apparently so mad that he had a new headstone made there, just for him. My grandma's not on it at all.
Whenever I'd tell these stories to my friends back in Canada, they'd be surprised to hear how openly my family discussed death and burials. We'd laugh at the absurdity of my grandparents' insistence that we go to the cemetery to see our relatives — and their own future graves — every time I visited.
This humour was why I decided to make a documentary about Romanian burial traditions.
The best laid plans
Though there are variations on how burial traditions are upheld, my mom tells me that in Oltenia, the region of Romania we're from, it's customary to have a light burning — a candle or an oil lamp — as a person is dying to help light the way.
Funerals happen in the church, followed by a series of memorial ceremonies where wine and the traditional foods colivă and colvac are shared with the community. These ceremonies, called pomanas, happen at set intervals after death: at three days, nine days, and 40 days, then at three, six, and nine months, and then on the anniversary of the death for seven years.
As we looked through my grandpa's closet that day last year in Romania, I could hear and see my mom bearing the weight of carrying out these traditions and honouring his wishes. During that trip, she went to visit him every day. It turned out that would be our last time seeing him in person.
On Friday, Sept. 19, we got the call that my grandpa had tested positive for COVID-19. He passed away two days later. He was 88 years old.
Public health regulations
Because my grandpa died of COVID-19, public health regulations prevented him from having the church funeral he had planned.
Though he was still buried in one of the graves he had chosen, the only guests were his great niece, two neighbours, the priest who conducted the ceremony right at the grave, and the funeral home workers, dressed in head-to-toe personal protective equipment, who lowered his casket into the grave.
My grandma, who had an episode of very high blood pressure that morning, was unable to leave her apartment. Though there was hastily prepared colivă and colvac, there was no one to drink it.
The plans that had hopefully given my grandpa comfort in life now haunt my mom and grandma, who were unable to give him the death he had wanted.
But we take comfort in a few things. My grandma is planning a proper 40-day pomana, where instead of having a group feast, bags of food will be handed out to go.
My mom has taken comfort in the unexpected response to a memorial post on Facebook from old friends, family, and colleagues.
And me, I've taken comfort in this documentary, which after more than a year of work and months of pandemic delay, airs a week to the day of my grandpa's death. Hopefully, in the absence of a proper pomana, readers and listeners can help keep my grandpa's memory alive.
About the Producer
Eva Voinigescu is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and producer. Her stories in publications like the Toronto Star, CBC Life, and University Affairs cover science, health, and culture topics and often incorporate aspects of personal narrative.
This documentary was produced with, and edited by, Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.