For many people, a walk through a cemetery is something to be avoided except on the rarest of occasions and which inspires feelings of dread and images of the gothic horror movies that frightened us in our youth. But for me, a visit to a cemetery – most especially, a Rusyn cemetery – is usually a peaceful, heartwarming exercise. It inspires my imagination as I think of the early immigrants buried there, the vastly different world they left even long before I was born. I ponder their lives as I see their pictures, as many of the traditional stones will have. I feel at ease, knowing that I'm among my own people – gone from this life but still present in the memory of the living, present likewise in the hereafter.
|St. Michael the Archangel Greek Catholic Cemetery, Shenandoah, Pa. – the oldest Rusyn cemetery in the U.S.|
Even if we find ourselves more in the "avoid it" group, a visit to the cemetery is an essential part of our genealogical quest. When we find the graves of our Rusyn immigrant ancestors, in many cases they are not in English and the inscriptions are rather elaborate. The purpose of this article is to explain the content and meaning of the typical Rusyn gravestone inscriptions, and hopefully to inspire the research and appreciation of these treasures in your own family history.
If you're just starting to search for the burial places of your Rusyn immigrant ancestors, you should know in what cemeteries they will typically be found. Given that most Rusyns were members of Byzantine/Greek Catholic or Orthodox churches, we might start with those cemeteries.
Parish cemeteries: In states like like Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Connecticut, where there are many small towns with a Rusyn church, the parishes are most likely to have their own cemeteries. These can make for the most interesting study, because it may be evident that many or even most of the family names in the cemetery come from the same European Rusyn village or clusters of adjacent villages.
|St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cemetery|
Town cemeteries: In some towns or urban areas, several Rusyn churches may have used a local non-sectarian cemetery (or a section or it) as a burial place. Some examples of these cemeteries where many Rusyn immigrants are buried are Monongahela Cemetery (two identically-named cemeteries, one in North Braddock, Pa., the other in Monongahela, Pa.), Union Cemetery in Toronto, Ohio; Grandview Cemetery in Johnstown, Pa., and Oakland Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pa. To find Rusyn immigrant graves in these very large cemeteries, your best bet is to go to the “edges” and near the “back.” Unfortunately, the majority of eastern European immigrants, because or their low socioeconomic status, were only able to obtain plots in the least desirable parts of the cemetery. In these areas, which are readily identified by the numerous Latin and 3-bar crosses on the stones all clustered together, are also found many stones with non-English inscriptions. One will find both Orthodox and Greek Catholic (and other) Rusyn immigrants in most of these cemeteries, although if the town also has a large Roman Catholic cemetery (or a separate Greek Catholic cemetery), it may be only Orthodox Rusyns who are mainly buried here.
Roman Catholic cemeteries: As mentioned above in the context of non-sectarian cemeteries, in many urban areas Rusyn Greek Catholics did not establish their own parish cemeteries but instead used large Roman Catholic cemeteries that likewise served many parishes and many ethnic groups. The immigrant stones, like in town cemeteries, are usually grouped together, but in this case they would almost all have one type of cross or another. So look for stones with a three-bar cross or some of inscriptions described in this article. Usually the ethnic groups are buried in the same general vicinity, so you're more likely to find Rusyn graves near Slovak, Hungarian, or Ukrainian graves rather than near Irish, German, or Italian graves. Some good examples of this are Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown, Ohio (which, although separate Orthodox and Greek Catholic cemeteries exist, is also the resting place of many Rusyn immigrants), Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon (Philadelphia), Pa., and Sacred Heart Cemetery in Manville, New Jersey.
Rusyn multi-parish cemeteries: In some urban areas, Rusyns purchased their own cemetery which by design or eventually came to be used by several different churches. One example is St. Peter’s Greek Catholic Cemetery in Garfield (Passaic), New Jersey, which initially served Greek Catholic Rusyns but was eventually used by Orthodox Rusyns and also other Orthodox Christian immigrants, even non-Slav Greeks and Albanians. After the Rusyn Greek Catholic church in Bridgeport, Connecticut split into several smaller parishes—some Greek Catholic, some Orthodox—they continued to use the original cemetery. And the very large St. Theodosius Orthodox Cemetery in Brooklyn (Cleveland), Ohio, first established for that parish church, soon became the preferred burial ground for Orthodox Christians of all ethnic backgrounds from the greater Cleveland area. Cleveland’s Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Cemetery likewise serves several Rusyn churches from the greater Cleveland area.
|St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cemetery, Brooklyn (Cleveland), Ohio|
Some “Rusyn cemetery trivia” of interest: the oldest Rusyn cemetery in the United States is that of St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, which was purchased and blessed in 1885. The oldest still-readable stones date from 1899. The largest Rusyn cemetery that was originally established for a single parish: St. John the Baptist Greek Catholic Cemetery in Stratford (Bridgeport), Connecticut. And the cemetery with the largest number of stones that show the deceased person’s village of birth? St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Mayfield, Pa., where more than 60 tombstones show this valuable information.
When you’ve found the stones of interest, if they date from about 1940 or earlier, there’s a good chance that the inscriptions won’t be in English. Of course, if the names are only in the Cyrillic alphabet, you’ll need to learn at least basic transliteration so you can at least figure out the person’s name. The good news is that Rusyn immigrant gravestone inscriptions follow a basic pattern, which we can easily become familiar with.
The usual format of the stones looks like this:
Birthplace (village, county)
Each line will have any number of possible variations. We'll also find that the actual language used to write them varies: from Eastern Slovak (using the Latin alphabet) to Rusyn (using either the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets), Church Slavonic (using the old-style Church Slavonic version of Cyrillic), and Ukrainian or even standard Russian (in Cyrillic). The language used may correspond to the immigrant's religious affiliation (e.g., if in standard Russian, they were almost certainly Russian Orthodox) or national feeling (a Rusyn's gravestone in a Ukrainian Catholic cemetery might be written in Ukrainian, while that of somebody from the same village, in the neighboring Russian Orthodox cemetery might be in Russian).
Narodilsja (a male) / Narodilasja (a female),
Narodzil še (m.) / Narodzila še (f.),
Narodeny (m.) / Narodena (f.),
Rodeny (m.) / Rodena (f.),
Rodz. / Nar.
РОДИЛСЯ (m.) / РОДИЛАСЯ (f.), РОДИЛАСЬ (f.)
Pomer (m.) / Pomerla (f.),
Umer (m.) / Umerla (f.),
Zomrel (m.) / Zomrela (f.),
Pom. / Um. / Zom. / ПОМ. / УМ.
|БЛАЖЕННЫЙ ПОКОЙ / Blažennyj pokoj
Vičnaja jemu/mu pamjat' (m.)
Vičnaja jej pamjat' (f.)
Vičnaja jim/im pamjat' (plural)
Other words/phrases found on Rusyn immigrants' tombstones
|Р.Б./R.B./Rab Božij (m.) / Raba Božija (f.)
Stary (m.) / Stara (f.)
stolica/st./СТ., povit/ПОВІТ, Župa
Žena, Manželka, СУПРУГА
Otec/ОТЕЦЬ, НЯНЬО, ТАТО
Mama, Matka, Mati/МАТИ, МАТЬ
Naša draha matka
Naš mily syn / Naša mila dcera
Naj budze zeml'a lehka
Odpočivajte v pokoji
МИРЪ ПРАXУ ТВОЕМУ
Člen/ЧЛЕН (m.), Členkiňa/ЧЛЕНКИНЯ (f.)
Bul udom / Bula udkyňa
|the servant/handmaid of God|
years (of age)
Our dear mother
Our dear son/daughter
May the ground cover (him/her) softly
Rest in peace
Peace be to your remains
[of] Fraternal lodge #
Was a member [of a fraternal lodge]
The best way to understand how to read Rusyn immigrant gravestones is to look at actual examples. Below are six such stones, with a transcription or reproduction of the inscription on each, with a line-by-line translation.
What is “Eternal Memory”?
One phrase that we'll see on almost every gravestone of a Rusyn who was an Orthodox or Byzantine/Greek Catholic Christian is Vičnaja pamjat' – “Eternal Memory” (or “Memory Eternal”) . This prayer comes from these Churches' burial services, the parastas (wake) and panachida (memorial service), that God grant the deceased “blessed repose and eternal memory.”
We'll wax theological for a moment, because the meaning of this prayer is probably one of the least-understood from the Rusyns' Eastern Christian tradition, yet its haunting melodies heard and sung many times throughout a Rusyn's life, makes its explanation worthwhile here. It refers not to the idea that we will remember the deceased person forever; rather, it refers to the belief and hope that God "remembers" him or her in eternity, that the soul will live forever in God's Kingdom.
With this in mind, let us also resolve to keep alive on earth the memory of our departed Rusyn forebears, especially when we visit the cemeteries in search of insight into their lives.
Original material is © by the author, Richard D. Custer; all rights reserved.