'Feast in the cemetery' and the life of the Setos

Staging a giant open air party in a graveyard is not to everyone’s taste.

In some societies it would be regarded as the violation of sacred ground. Sacrilege.

So when I heard about the "feast in the cemetery" held every year in southern Estonia I was unsure what to expect.

The sight which greets visitors to the churchyard in the small village of Obinitsa is extraordinary. Families literally feasting on the graves of ancestors.

Every plot in the cemetery becomes a makeshift picnic site. Delicious looking food is laid out alongside tombstones. And there is lots of alcohol.

The dead are regarded as honoured guests. Leaving a little food, some meatballs maybe, and a glass of local firewater, for those in the graves to enjoy is one of the rituals.

The feast is an important date in the calendar of one of Europe’s last surviving ethnic folk cultures, the Setos. But the Seto way of life is under threat.

Their traditional homeland is an area called Setomaa, a territory straddling the border between Estonia and Russia.

Setos have their own language, customs and traditional dress. When Seto women party, it is not long before their unique polyphonic singing is heard.

Many Setos are drifting from their rural homeland to urban areas Credit: ITV News

Many Setos, however, have drifted away from their rural homeland, to towns and cities.

The influence of modern European culture and exposure to Estonian media makes the Seto language less relevant.

Setomaa was also split in two by the break-up of the Soviet Union. Many Russian Setos came west. Farmers lost their old markets on "the other side".

I visited one small hamlet, Potmotsa, where villagers can no longer worship in their local church, let alone feast in the graveyard.

It is visible on the other side of a river. But the river is now the border and crossing by boat is forbidden.

Going to church involves a journey of almost 100km, through a border checkpoint. Few bother.

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