It was in early spring of 1990, about three months after the assassination of the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena Ceausescu. A long-standing friend from the Transylvanian town of Cluj in Romania asked whether I wanted to purchase two largish companies in the furniture trade. Both had made furniture for well-known suppliers of furniture in Europe and Asia. Both companies were now bankrupt with several thousand people unemployed in two cities around Cluj in Transylvania.
I looked at the company and negotiated a deal that gave me the company for an almost nominal investment. Through that, I could save about 3,000 jobs in an area where there were few alternative jobs. The critical issue was the continuation of the delivery contracts to the West. It was essential to generate for the employees of their towns. It was a lot of hard work to turn around the companies and make them profitable, while at the same time introducing new technologies and computer systems. I spent most of the summer and autumn in Romania and nearby Ukraine, also to turn around another company I had acquired.
I had built a friendship with one of the Romanian employees, the head of the growing computer department, Mihael Petrescu. He asked me one November evening in 1991 whether I wanted to see something interesting. He told me to put on really warm clothes because what we intended to do would be outside. And we would be there for many hours. It was the middle of November and the icy wind coming across Ukraine and from Siberia was something one had to consider if one wanted to survive a few hours in the outdoors.
At about seven in the evening, we drove two hours to a quite remote village and parked our car in the yard of one of the elder uncles of Mihael. The uncle, who came out of the house to greet us, made a point that we had to camouflage the car so that no one would see them. We drove a large Toyota Landcruiser with an American number plate and were, therefore, quite a prominent and a well-known sight. The elderly gentlemen, Alexander, had retired from his position as mayor of one of the small nearby towns. His lovely wife, Gabriela, a retired science teacher from the local Lycée, invited us into their house for a quick meal. As it was usual in Romania, there was alcohol to strengthen us for our, at that time to me, unknown adventure.
The older man supplied us with Zuika, a potent plum schnaps commonly consumed in the area. After the short but very healthy supper, the uncle and Gabriela told us to be very careful. We had, as the uncle said, to make sure that we would not be caught by any of the people we were going to observe.
From the house where we had left the car, we trekked for about five miles across some fields. We were always watching that we stayed in the shadows of trees and hedges so that no one could see us who accidentally were outside their houses. We finally arrived at an orthodox cemetery, and following the instruction of Mihael, we hid behind some bushes. Not far from us, within less than ten yards, there were two recently dug graves. One of them was from a recent burial and was already occupied while the other was just the hole waiting for an occupant. There was no one in the cemetery at the time, and Mihael told me that we had to wait.
Mihael said that the occupied grave was of a recently deceased local farmer. He had killed himself, and his sons had found him hanging in their family’s cowshed. His death was the final consequence of a violent sequence of events in a family tragedy. The private radio station in Reghin, a small town in Mureș County, Transylvania, had reported that the man had killed his brother and his elderly aunt with an ax. Then he had hanged himself.
Mihael said, judging from the man’s name, Django Winterstein, he was at least half Sinti. The Sinti, along with Romani, arrived in Romania at the end of the late Middle Ages. They came around 1500 from the Indian subcontinent. In France and Spain, they are known as the Manouche and, the late Django Reinhard a famous guitarist and Jazz musician in France is one of its members. In England, they are often collectively named as gypsies. They had brought with them various native forms of behavior dealing with extraordinary events in their often large and extended families. They distrust the local police in solving their problems and usually dealt with those internally.
One of the most famous stories, a giant but fascinating tale of misunderstanding and misinterpretation was written by Bram Stoker (1847-1912), a theater manager of the famous Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker, a gifted writer, had not traveled much, but he had met, in London, a Hungarian writer, Turcologist and traveler called Ármin Vámbéry (1832-1913). The Hungarian had told Stoker dark tales from the Carpathian mountains, especially from the area around Bistrița-Năsăud, a county, and city just north of where we were. Stoker had placed a count, Count Dragula, into a remote castle near Bistrița and had spun his fantastic tale of vampires around the occupants of this castle.
It was pretty cold, about minus ten degrees Centigrade and Mihael had taken some Zuika, the local plum-schnaps with him which he offered me. We waited for about two hours. I noticed in the clear night that it was the full moon. Then some people arrived and disappeared again. They were maybe about twenty middle-aged and older adults. We had to be careful because we were pretty close to the gravesite, and Mihael told me that we could under no circumstances be discovered.
We waited another two hours in the bright but beautiful cold night. The temperature was well below minus ten centigrade/. Mihael told me some stories about the Sinti and Roma people who often lived in separate villages. Michaels grandmother was Sinti, and he understood some Romani and Sinti though he said that his vocabulary was somewhat limited.
Suddenly we heard some singing. It was a group about a kilometer away. We could see their shadows. As they came closer, I counted about thirty people, and they appeared to be all men. They sang a haunting song, and there was a bass singer one could hear above all the others. It seemed that he composed a text which was then repeated by the others. The group came close to our hiding place. I noticed that they had shovels and pickaxes. They surrounded the recent gravesite, and one guy fell into the open grave next to the latest site. Some of the younger men helped him out and laughed, one saying in Romanian, “You had too much Zuika!” Then they started to remove the flowers and wreaths and put them all neatly on some of the nearby graves. Then they started digging.
The soil was frozen, and it must have been hard work. It took the men about fifteen minutes till we heard that they had hit the coffin. I think there was a discussion about whether to get the coffin out of the grave or whether to leave it and open the cover. Finally, while we watched the men opening the grave slowly and putting some ropes down and around the coffin so that it could be lifted. It was quite a very shallow grave, maybe only two foot deep. They had some difficulty getting the ropes around the coffin, and finally, they lifted the coffin out and placed it next to the open grave. Some of the men were continually singing. The song was like a mix of an orthodox church melody and some oriental sounds. The men stood around the coffin and continued to sing, repeating the same theme for about ten minutes.
Then they opened the coffin. The body must have been some days in the grave because the smell from the decaying flesh was quite overwhelming. I could see the head of the deceased in the moonlight. The men continued to sing the same melody over and over again. It was like some sacred chant and sounded eerie and haunting in the moonlit night.
Then we saw a younger man coming forward and holding a wooden stake to the body, about where the hearth of the dead person was. They continued to sing while the younger man held the stake. Then another older man had a large wooden mallet, a sort of gigantic hammer, and with one swing rammed the stake into the dead body.
There was a loud whistling sound from the gas that escaped the body when the stake had entered it. The smell of that gas was terrible and pungent. After some time and the singing of the same song, the younger man pulled the stake of the body and put it on the ground. Some of the other men walked several times around the open coffin, still singing the same song. Then one of the men was saying very loudly some; what we thought was a prayer in Sinti bowing North, South, West, and East. With every bow, the other men sang a refrain with the same words and making the orthodox cross repeatedly. Then they walked several times around the coffin again. We no longer smelled the decaying body. It was probably naturally too cold, or we had gotten used to it.
Finally, they closed the coffin again and moved the casket on some boards which they had put across the new open grave. Two men started to fill in the original grave from where they had taken to coffin. They placed some ropes around the coffin and then four men held on the lines while some others pulled the wooden boards from underneath the coffin. One of the two guys holding the ropes on the rear of the casket, suddenly let go and the coffin crashed into the hole. Some of the group were still singing their song. Though the crash made them stop and one guy thundered in Romanian, “shit” while another two guys took hold of the rope and pulled the coffin up again. Then they said something to the other guys and slowly let the coffin into the hole. One it had descended to the bottom, they made the ropes slide into the hole, and some of the other men with the shovels started to fill in the grave. That took some time since the heap of soil which they had removed from the grave the day before, had already been frozen. In the end, they put the cross at the end of the grave, and then they arranged the flowers and wreaths back on the new grave. Mihael and I starred from behind the bushes with astonishment at the group of men. They stood now around the grave and started chanting again. This time it was a different song, and the singing lasted about ten minutes.
About ten minutes later, the men gathered their tools and then walked back out of the cemetery, still singing that haunting song. We were half-frozen, and I could feel the strong Zuika in my bones. Both of us could hardly get up; our bones were stiff from the cold. I asked Mihael whether he had ever watched what we had just seen. He said he knew about it but had never watched it. Mihael explained that it was the releasing of the soul from the body so that the corps would not wander around forever, not finding any peace. The person in the grave killed someone, and he required help. His turbulent spirits had to find rest and depart. The belief and ceremony had Sinti origins and was still prevalent in rural areas.
It took us about two hours to walk across the fields back to Mihael’s uncle. When we arrived there, the uncle and his wife had again prepared the table with all sorts of lovely goodies which Mihael’s aunt had baked while we were out at the cemetery. Naturally, there was more Zuika, and I was afraid to drive back to Reghin. In the end, both Mihael and I were pretty drunk, and Mihael’s aunt suggested that we stay in the house and sleep the alcohol off before returning to our factory in midmorning
©2005/2019 bertberger (2092 words)
This story, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading and distribution of the story via the Internet or in any other means, including storage in any form of information or retrieval system, without the expressed written consent of the author is illegal and punishable by law. The exception to this is if newspapers, magazines or other reviewers wish to quote brief passages in connection with a review.
.If you want to contact the author, send an email to