Thoughts Wandering in an Estonian Cemetery

Gravestone inscriptions can inspire psychological thinking.

Posted Jun 25, 2015

Hester White, used with permission
Source: Hester White, used with permission

Yesterday was St. John’s Day in Estonia. This special holiday is the Christian version of an old pagan celebration of the summer solstice. On St. John’s Eve, many Estonian families gather in the countryside to make a huge bonfire and consume copious amounts of grilled meats and beer.

The following day, many families visit cemeteries. They tidy up the family plot, light candles, and place flowers on the graves of loved ones. My wife Hester and I were invited by our friends Raivo and Aune to visit Aune’s family plot in a rural cemetery in south Estonia. 

Estonian cemeteries don’t look like American cemeteries. No vast expanses of manicured lawns here. An Estonian cemetery (kalmistu) is almost always located in a wooded area. The cemetery is divided into separate family plots, each of which is about 100 square feet in size.

Hester White, used with permission
Source: Hester White, used with permission

Many of the plots have a small bench so that family members can sit and commune with the deceased. Russian families sometimes have a small picnic at the grave site. Tradition requires them to share a swig of vodka with their ancestors, so they pour a taste of Viru Valge onto the grave.

While Aune’s parents tended to their plot, the four of us walked slowly through the cemetery, reading the inscriptions on headstones. Hester and I remarked on the large number of Estonian family names that refer explicitly to some aspect of the natural world. Tamm (oak), Kask (birch), Lind (bird), Ilves (lynx), Karu (bear), Orav (squirrel), Kirsipuu (cherry tree), Sibul (onion), Kivi (stone), Paas (limestone), Alliksoo (spring-bog), Torm (storm), Välk (lightning), and Lillemäe (flower mountain). This is just a small sample; the full list goes on and on.

The 10 most popular surnames in Estonia (translated into English) are Oak, Island, Smith, Mountain, Birch, Rooster, Fox, Lynx, Linden Tree, and Paddock.[1]

The 10 most popular surnames in the U.S. are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, and Wilson. To my knowledge, none of those names is an animal or a feature of the natural environment.

The four cemetery walkers—Aune, Raivo, Hester, and I—had all studied psychology at university. So how did we react to what we observed about the gravestones? Like good psychologists, we formulated a hypothesis: Family names in Estonia and the U.S. follow very different patterns—and these patterns might produce differences in cultural values or personal identity. Do Estonians, because of their surnames, feel more closely connected to nature? Are Estonians more likely to be animists, to believe that stones and trees and lakes have souls and spirits of their own?

As the four of us continued to wander, our thoughts turned from names to the messages inscribed on the headstones. The sentiments expressed were very similar to those expressed in American cemeteries. Puhake rahus (rest in peace). Arm on jääv (love is forever). Mälestus ei kustu (memory does not fade).

If social psychologists are correct, then our behaviors and thoughts are shaped substantially by our immediate environment. People become competitive when they’re engaged in a contest. People become altruistic when the circumstances call for helping.

In the spirit of this perspective—sometimes called situationism—Raivo proposed an idea that would transform the “situation” we call a cemetery.

He asked us to imagine that the words inscribed on a headstone were written by the person buried under the stone instead of by the family of the deceased. A person, while still alive, would think carefully about the message he or she wanted to share with others.

A succinct homily perhaps. Pithy words of advice. A philosophical musing. In my own case, I might write something obscure like “Usually I forgot, but sometimes I forgave.”

According to Raivo, a walk in a cemetery could become a whole new experience, a new way to absorb the wisdom of those who have come before us.

Most people are old when they die and have lived a life full of ups and downs. Experience is a great teacher, so older people often possess a special kind of wisdom. But they aren’t always able to share their wisdom with younger generations.

A walk in Raivo’s cemetery would be a short course in philosophy, a meditation upon the words inscribed in stone.  Important words, given to us by our future selves.

[1] According to Estonica (an on-line encyclopedia), individual Estonians had only a first name until the region was Christianized in the 14th century. To facilitate record keeping at the parishes, clergy created surnames from the names of professions—Raudsepp (blacksmith), for example—and the names of places.

If the next generation changed profession or location, the surname also changed. Initially, only some Estonians living in cities and towns had surnames. Estonian peasants didn’t receive surnames until serfdom was abolished in the early 19th century.

The oft-told story is that Baltic German nobles, who owned vast estates, assigned surnames to their Estonian peasants. The name was connected to the individual in some way. If Jaan was a fisherman, the lord of the manor might call him Jaan Kalamees. If Anu had a talent for growing beets, she might be called Anu Peet.