The Three Necessities of Life

”The Three Necessities of Life”

This exhibition attempts to display the unity of the milestones of life, offering an insight to a variety of customs and habits through artefacts and digitalized material, which illustrates the eternal law of the inseparable nature of birth, marriage and death:

”Only those can escape growing old who haven’t been born yet”– as the saying goes in Hajdúság. The time between birth and death depends on how much was weighed out by the Creator.

The exhibition has been brought to life with the aim of deciphering and understanding this tripartition of life, reviewing the customs connected to these turning points of life, which were present and practised by the inhabitants of the former “nagyhajdú” towns – Böszörmény, Szoboszló, Nánás, Dorog, Hadház, Vámospércs. These customs build up a system which gains sense when focusing not only on the similarities but on all the differences upon which one can claim, these are the customs of the people in Hajdúság when it comes to birth, marriage and death.

”From Birth to Marriage”

At the time of childbirth, they used to comment guesses over the sex of the child: ”No matter which, just health that matters.” However, when it came to choosing a partner, remarks on the spouse turned much more radical. Parents who were lenient enough to leave the burden of choosing the future partner to their sons or daughters, might have put pithily ”The one you pick, the one you smell”, but only after the wrong decision had already been made.


Childbirth has been one of the most decisive event in life since the beginning of time. The start of a new life naturally gives rise to ambivalent feelings, sacred and profane, exalted and ordinary at the same time. We can think of the variety of expressions in our language denoting the state of the woman preceding childbirth. Hungarian language dispose of the eloquent ”blessed state” as well as the ordinary ”woman with a burden” to describe pregnancy.

The time of informing the relatives varied from family to family. Some divulged the news of the new-born, others postponed it until it could not be concealed any longer. This latter attitude can be explained by the consideration of the expectant mother to avoid being decried in case of a miscarriage.

Sex of the new-born

In case of a first-born, parents did not tend to be concerned about the sex of the child. ”No matter if it’s a boy or a girl, just be healthy!” – they used to say. However, it was important to have at least a boy among the following children to be born, as families without a male descendant were labelled ”died out without progeny” as the family name could no longer be bequeathed.

Giving life


Mothers always made preparations before the arrival of the child, they had been gathering babywear for months before bearing. They bought cambric or calico fabrics, white or printed, depending on the sex of the new-born, blue (for boys) or rose (for girls), which they used to prepare baby shirts.


There was an ambivalent attitude towards the role and the image of midwives among the folks. Their indispensable activity made their presence crucial and desirable in every family. They were surrounded by an atmosphere of respect and authority, on the other hand, people also had reservations towards them and it was motivated by fear. This duality brought forth and fuelled superstitions connected to midwives and lead to the prevalence of these practices throughout centuries.

There were many factors that that made the role of the midwife outstanding. In the mid 18th century, chyrurgus – or simply surgeons–  were only present in Böszörmény, Nánás and Szoboszló. Only midwives were available in appropriate number in the six ”old” Hajdú towns, so in addition to childbearing and infant-care, they were also responsible for treating other illnesses of the inhabitants. – ”The District Midwife is obliged to attend when called, to any childbirth with complications without loss of time, no matter how poor the expectant woman might be, she must provide midwife assistance to her utmost capacity. When Detained Women are in need of Midwife Service, the helper should be quartered in the Praetorialis. The decision has been adopted that the District Midwife must reside in Böszörmény.


The process of childbirth – the so called ”compó”

When the labour started the husband called for the midwife. When she arrived at the house she set to work immediately accompanied by her assistant, called ”compó”. Compó helpers were usually poor women hired for assisting women in confinement with the daily housework. They were taken to the house of the confined mother by midwives, who were in relation with several compó women. They were always commended by the hired midwife.

Their duty comprised caring the mother and the child, curing illnesses and naturally, doing the daily housework. Child-bearing took place in the Clean Room. No male person could be present during the confinement, they had only secondary roles, mostly assisting the preparations.

Infant care

As for infant-care, we must differentiate between activities of rational and magical nature. This is the period when babies need relatively the most care and at the same time it is considered the most significant period of magical activities.

We can find two custom variants related to the bathwater, one for the healthy and one for the ill child. Apart from some exceptions both followed the same method. The main differences arise from religious considerations. While Catholics threw bathwater in cross shape and westwards to let Jesus Christ take away the illness of the child and heal it, reformed Protestants modified this custom by throwing the water to the crossroads to let the carts take the illness away.

Customs related to marriage

As marriage has always been considered a crucial turning point by every community, even the decision was sometimes taken out of the hands of the young. Choosing the future spouse – particularly in wealthier families – was up to the parents. The question of like or dislike – just like love – was a by-consideration next to the fortune and the reputation of the family.

Those days, young men were not supposed to attend the girl’s parents at first place, he always sent a forerunner (”előcsajhos”) to act in his name. If he met with success, he was  awarded a bushel of wheat for the plod. These women on the scout were given various names in the Hajdú towns. They were called intermediate women in Szoboszló, commending women in Vámospércs, sluttish (”loncsos”) or flunkey (”csajhos”) in Nánás and ”women in small fur coat” (”kisbundásasszony”), slut (”lotyó”) or bawd in Dorog. Their mission was to find out about the attitude of the beloved girl’s parents towards the marriage.

According to the customs, the approval of the girl’s family, achieved through the mediation of the commending woman, was followed by the visit of the young man for making a proposal. He wouldn’t pay a visit alone, he usually tried his luck accompanied by one of his friends. These proposal companions were called dog beaters (”kutyaütők”) and they were present not only by the side of the future husband but could accompany the best man as well, if he was appointed for popping the question. The task of the dog beater was not reduced only to assist the suitor, as the denomination suggests, they also kept the dogs away and even more importantly, they protected their friend from possible atrocities.

Proposals were not always made by the young men themselves. if they retained the services of a proposal maker, then the girl’s family also entrusted a female relative, usually the godmother, who was in charge of going to the suitor’s house and give out the news about the success of the proposal. She set out for the young man’s house, dressed appropriately in black and wearing a small fur coat, where she announced the good or bad news.

If the answer was favourable, they handed out the engagement gift, and this occasion was called engagement exchange. The value of the gift depended on the wealth, the ”material talent” of the young man, and it always became the exclusive property of the marriageable girl. The man was given an engagement kerchief or shirt in return.

The third phase of the announcement period was reserved for preparations. During the week preceding the wedding, families were busy with bringing together all the material and financial prerequisites of the event. One of the most remarkable social occasion of this period was preparing tiny spiral pasta (”csiga”) for the meat soup.

The invitation call took place on the day of the wedding. It was the time when the best man was entrusted to his traditional duties at the groom’s house then he asked for his commission at the bride’s house as well.

Horsemen’s wedding procession

Wedding procession in Böszörmény was lead by the best man on horseback with a naked sword in his hand. He was followed by the groom with two groomsmen on either side. Then came 25-30 horsemen by four, behind them, the bride’s carriage with the bridesmaids. And the carriage was accompanied by two horsemen on each side.

Each horsemen wore a horsehair leather flask in his neck. Along the way, the gypsy band were fiddling songs, the horsemen were handing out their flasks to old acquaintances they would see by the road.


While the manual rearrangement of the wedding room marked the transformation of the place into a sacred space, the schedule applied by the best man, who directed and ordered the sequence of events, altered the actual reality of time as well. Bride and Groom among this altered settings of time and space find themselves in an exclusive scene.

Putting up the bride’s hair

The time of putting up the hair arrived at midnight. In the 1800s , when the ceremony was held separately at the girl’s and the young man’s house, the best man took the help of the older women and went to the bride’s parents for the bridal cap. Just like all the episodes, presenting the new wife was the duty of the best man too.

Although several custom-actions preceding the first night of sleeping away, such as the best man’s farewell from the parents, brothers, sisters, friends and fellows, have already expressed the formal ”distancing and separation”, the new state of reaching man- and womanhood only came by at the nuptial night.

Customs and beliefs connected to death

Writings on the last turning point of life – death, funeral and taking the deceased away – are only available in reprehensibly lower amount than records about birth or marriage. As it has always been considered a ”delicate” field, collecting customs related to decease and burial has not been given enough focus.


A dying person was never left alone. A member of the family was always kept busy with duties around the moribund. The family were listening to his or her so called, last will, which was not about the heritage, it rather concerned the ceremony following the death. The bedridden was visited by the close relatives, they were talking and trying to ease the last journey. They cared for the dying person and did not separate him or her from the children, as, at that time, passing away was considered a natural part of life.

”Death always has to be proven by expert post-mortem examination”. That is to say, the fact of death had to be established by an authorized person. If there was no doctor available, the coroner was responsible for this duty.

Throughout the period of mourning, the function of the house was altered – even if only symbolically, it did not fulfil its original role – up until the funeral, it ceased to function as a home. At the moment of the decease the clock was stopped, the mirrors got covered with black veil so that the soul of the defunct could not see him or herself in it.

The custom of washing the dead body is rooted deeper than the folks who practised it, could be aware of its origins . Cleaning the body was not only performed for sanitary considerations, it can be dated back to ritual cleaning habits and functioned as a kind of separation ritual. While the tasks were being carried on around the deceased – the family, mainly the male member – completed the official duties. Among other things he ordered the coffin.

Coffin, gravepost and funeral hearse

Graves were dug out by relatives and acquaintances even in the early 1900s. On this occasion they were given lard, bread and spirit (“pálinka”) at the cemetery. Later, the cemetery ward then grave-diggers were charged with this task. Grave digging – if not done by relatives – was rewarded by 1-2 crones or a litre of “pálinka”, bread and lard.

Funeral hearses differed from other cabinet-structured carriages not only in their construction and size but in their outer appearance as well. Their uniqueness was assured by carvings built on its structure and four angel statues fixed to the corners.

The colour of the coffin had to match the age of the defunct. Old people deserved black, middle-aged brown, while young were given white coffins. However, in Böszörmény, there was a tradition of colourful floral-patterned coffins.

Grave posts were prepared for free in earlier times, the maker would not accept money for their efforts. However, during the work the carver was supposed to be given food and drink. Later on, grave posts were prepared by wheelsmiths, cartwrights and even carpenters.

Grave markers of Hajdú towns can be divided into several groups. The most significant group among these – and the most frequent one – is the so-called boat-shaped gravepost. The size of the graveposts always made reference to the deceased person. Size, shape and low-relief decorations reflected the age, sex and wealth. One could tell from the wooden gravepost at a distance who rested there. The colour, the size, its positioning on the tomb and, first of all, the finial told a lot about the person buried there.

The young deceased were buried with smaller and narrower graveposts than adults. However, these graveposts bore the same proportions as those of adults. At double burials of couples, women’s graveposts were always shorter than men’s. The grave marker of the wife was positioned on the left of the man’s. Wealthier people had taller and wider graveposts than the average but the height and proportions could not exceed it to a great extent.

Apart from the size, the finial also indicated the sex of the dead. In terms of sex, we can identify three main types of boat-shaped wooden graveposts in Hajdú towns.

Peaked finials were frequent with both men and women. So called ”hooded” graveposts were put to men’s tomb only, while ”bunned” ones were exclusively used as women’s grave markers..

We can find different variants of ”hooded” and ”bunned” graveposts, but the main formal characteristics remained the same. Inverted heart shape and other formal variants of heart shape can be found exclusively on men’s tombs while rounded intertwining curves – called ”bun” –, which resembles a tulip, was present only on women’s graves.

Other grave markers in the cemeteries of the Hajdú towns

Characteristic grave markers of Hajdú towns falls generally into four categories. Three of them are graveposts belonging to Protestant residents, while the last group, the cross was the attribute of Catholic tombs.

The most essential and the plainest type is the so called treetrunk graveposts.

They have a basic structure and it delimits their usage as well. We can find them mainly with families of more modest resources.. With the exception of Hajdúböszörmény, column-structured grave posts are present in almost every Hajdú town. the main type of column-structured graveposts can be further split into sub-categories with specific features for particular towns.

Tombstone boards and blocks

Tombstone blocks, or in other words obelisks, were installed on a stone platform, sunk well into the ground, in order to prevent the block from sinking. Relatively older tombstone blocks have inscriptions exclusively on the front side, containing only essential data.

The obelisk-like tombstone blocks with square base and truncated pyramid shape make up a separate type, and their height usually exceeds 2-3 meters

Statues representing the defunct person are very rare in the cemeteries of Hajdú towns. One example is the grave-statue of Sándor Dobó, teacher in Hajdúböszörmény, created by Sándor János Nagy, sculptor from Debrecen. Another is the bronze head of Béla Cseh, prepared by István Gách.

With the spread of artificial stone, gravestones appeared imitating wooden graveposts. Among them, we can find every type of graveposts of Hajdú towns. Local artisans prepared boat-shaped ones, as well as, all variants of column-structured type. It also changed the related traditions, stonemasons and brickmasons prepared the new memorials instead of skillful carpenters and cartwrights.

Wrought iron fences in the cemetery

The significance of the meaning inherent in the fences around tombs has been ignored by researchers for a long time, however, their function seems very obvious. Beside marking the boundaries of the tomb, they express the financial positioning of the deceased and the relatives looking after the grave. At the same time, it demonstrates the architectural style of the age, as the ironwork shows similarities with the contemporary architectural trends.


Funeral ceremony

When the funeral hearse comes to a halt at the burial site, the coffin is taken out of it and placed next to the tomb. Pallbearers stood in the same arrangement around the coffin as in the church. Following the traditional rites, the ceremony started with the singing of the local choir. Then, the minister gave a service, and the choir was singing while the casket went down into the ground. Four stronger relatives lowered the coffin into the grave and the cemetery ward fitted it to its place under the floor of the grave (”padmaly”). At earlier times, the relatives, later the ward filled in the grave, in more modern times the task is carried out by grave-diggers. It is the time of installing the gravepost, forming the sepulchral mound and placing the funeral wreaths. The lower placed wreath had to be the one of the closest relative.

Burial feast, commemoration

All the closer relatives were invited to the funeral meal following the ceremony. Participants were welcomed with “pálinka” then seated by the laid table. Hen soup was served with ”csiga” pasta then stewed meat or goulash. Finishing the meal, they started talking and having some wine. They would recollect traits of the deceased, telling his or her stories, incidents. These acts all served, even if temporarily, to ease the feeling of absence and grief of the bereaved.

Keeping the memory alive was facilitated by the period of mourning, which prepared the soul, but also came to expression in the appearance. Relatives of the deceased person put on mourning clothes right after death came, the colour was always black. Complete mourning outfits were only the characteristic of women after the funeral, in case of men, this period was only expressed through a black hat.

Szekeres Gyula

director of the museum – ethographer

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