Last Rites In Lower Lusatia

You may never have heard of the Sorbians. The Sorbians (or Wends as those living in nearby Germanic settlements often referred to them) were people of Western Slavic origins who settled primarily in Lower Lusatia, Prussia. As territorial boundaries slowly grew narrower and narrower during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they declined in numbers and became largely assimilated. By the late nineteenth century, there were only around forty thousand Sorbians left. Their language was quickly dying out but they fiercely clung to their medieval traditions. Preferring (or being forced) to live in isolated forest dwellings away from settlements isolated them largely from the general populous but they fiercely clung to their unique traditions and strong religious ideals.

For the Sorbians, skating was an important means of transportation. "The Seventy-Fourth Report Of The British And Foreign Bible Society" published in 1878 noted, "The River Spree - Berlin's river - and one of its tributaries, divide into about 300 arms, cutting up the flat country and intersecting it with a network of narrow, shallow, sluggish streams. The soil rises in summer about a foot above the level of the water; in winter it is flooded and generally covered with ice. The country is called the Spree Forest, for a part of it is covered with woods. It has no roads, often no footpaths, and but a few bridges. All communication is by punts in summer, by skates and sledges in winter. The [Sorbian] people go in punts or on skates to school, church and market, or if on foot they wade when necessary through the streams... On a Sunday from 1,500 to 2,000 may be seen in church, who have punted or skated, or walked or waded, from the many points of a parish almost as large as that covered by the houses of Berlin."

Although the Sorbians relied heavily on skating to get from point A to point B during long, harsh winters, their unique contribution to skating history was their funerary tradition... on ice. Volume 124 of "The Living Age" noted, "Some curious customs, we learned, are still extant in the Spreewald villages when the head of a family dies. For instance, if the deceased should have chanced to be a bee-keeper one of the family will go to the hive, and striking the comb, will exclaim, 'Bees, arise, your master is dead!' On the morning of the funeral, too, the men proceed to the cattle-sheds, and after causing the animals to get upon their legs, and placing cheese for them, will solemnly announce to them that the body is about to be taken away." Sorbian men would wear black and women donned a traditional Sorbian funerary costume and all put on their skates for a ritualistic final 'goodbye skate'. The March 1908 edition of "Popular Mechanics" magazine noted, "As in Holland, the thoroughfares are waterways. In the winter time, when these are frozen over, funeral processions pass along the ice on skates. The coffin is carried on a sledge, drawn by six mourners on skates. The immediate relatives of the dead, men and women alike, skate along behind the coffin, surrounded by their friends. The women carry a Bible in one hand and wear the ancient national costume."

As the Sorbians were a highly religious but isolated people, their funerary procession on ice was as much out of necessity as it was ritualistic. They needed to go that distance over the icy terrain to find a priest. It might seem odd to us today to think of a funeral procession on skates but to the ice-loving Sorbians, they were giving their loved ones one final skate. It's kind of beautiful, isn't it?

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