Marju Torp-Kõivupuu. Cross-trees in southern Estonian landscape and folk beliefs


Cross-tree is a big tree, such as a spruce, pine, or birch, into which the godsons or closest male relatives of the deceased cut a cross-mark during the funeral procession. Cross-trees may be either single-standing trees at (cross)roads or there could be several cross-trees growing on the roadside edges of forests (‘crossforests’).

Earliest reports of cross-trees or their analogues in Estonia date to the 17th century (Brand: from 1673; Olearius: from 1635). in addition to southern Estonia (mainly the historical district of Võrumaa), the tradition was kept alive on the island of Saaremaa in western Estonia up to the 1940s, and similar practices can be met in the funeral customs of the Orthodox Setus. Cutting crosses on trees when returning from the graveyard after the funeral was also common in northern Latvia, Finland, and some other places. Cross-trees have preserved the idea that souls reside in trees. Today, the living tradition of cross-trees of southern Estonia is unique in Europe and probably also in the world.

The location of a cross-tree depends on landscape, but usually it marks consciously or subconsciously the place where relatives bid final farewell to the deceased because the deceased is no more part of the world of the living. Cross-forests (coniferous or mixed forests) are located either in the immediate vicinity of graveyards or along the church roads, that is, roads that link the village and the cemetery.

Social changes disrupted the former way of life of the village community in the Soviet period, but they also favoured the preservation of the tradition of cross-trees. If possible, crosses were cut on the trees bordering a farm expropriated by the Soviet authorities. The custom honoured ancient traditions and expressed protest against the illegal and foreign social order. The custom of cross-trees did not rule out Lutherans living in rural areas. It was insignificant in the given context whether a person was baptized and a member of the congregation or not. Normal relations between the church and the people were restricted in the Soviet period and cutting crosses was regarded as a substitute for religious ceremony. Atheist schoolteachers, local authorities of the Communist party, and other officials showed a negative attitude towards it, which reinforced the custom of cross-trees as a substitute for Christian funeral rites, often impossible to practice in the Soviet time. Older local pastors had a neutral attitude towards cross-trees generally, and they were themselves involved in the ceremony. Their motives for participation were respect for local customs and meeting the wishes of the deceased.

The article focuses on the following:

1) narrative beliefs connected with cross-trees, beliefs as an important factor in preserving the tradition of cross-trees in presentday southern Estonia;

2) cross-trees as sacred trees that need to be protected in those parts of post-communist Estonia where landscape is actively transformed into urban or man-made landscape.

Marju Torp-Kõivupuu