The practice of opening graves and mutilating dead bodies is quite common, and arises in general from the notion that persons who die impenitent and without extreme unction, including suicides and victims to delirium tremens, apoplexy, and other forms of sudden death, as well as schismatics, sorcerers, and witches, come forth from their graves and wander about as vampires, sucking the blood of individuals during sleep and inflicting misery upon entire communities by producing drought, famine, and pestilence. The means employed to prevent this dangerous metamorphosis, or at least to compel the vampire to remain in the grave, differ in different countries.
In Russia the deceased is buried with his face downward, and an ashen stake driven through his back, while in Poland and East Prussia the corpse is wrapped up in a fish net and covered with poppies, owing, doubtless, to the soporific qualities of this plant. Preventive measures of this kind are often taken with the consent and co-operation of the clergy and local authorities. Thus, in 1849, at Mariensee, near Dantzig, in West Prussia, a peasant's wife came to the Catholic priest of the parish and complained that an old woman named Welm, recently deceased, appeared in her house and beat and otherwise tormented her child. The priest seems to have accepted the truth of her statement, since he ordered the corpse to be disinterred, decapitated, reburied at a cross-road, and covered with poppies.
In 1851, during the prevalence of cholera in Ukraine, in the governmental province of Kiev, the peasants of Possady attributed the epidemic to a deceased sacristan and his wife, who were supposed to roam about at night as vampires and kill people by sucking their blood. In order to stay the ravages of the scourge the corpses of this couple were exhumed, their heads cut off and burned, and ashen stakes driven through their backs into the ground. In 1892 a peasant woman in the Russian province of Kovno hanged herself in a wood near the village of Somenishki. The priest refused her Christian burial because she had committed suicide, and was therefore given over to the devil. In order that she might rest quietly in her grave and not be changed into a vampire, her sons severed her head from her body and laid it at her feet. In thus refusing to perform religious funeral rites the priest obeyed the canons of the church and also the laws of the Russian Empire.
Until the twentieth century a corner of unconsecrated ground next to the wall of the Russian cemetery was reserved as a sort of carrion pit for the corpses of self-murderers, and it is expressly prescribed in the Svod Sakonov that they "shall be dragged to such place of infamy by the knacker, and there covered with earth." This treatment of a felo-de-se by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities directly fosters popular superstition by tending to confirm the notion that there is something uncanny, eldritch, demoniacal, and preternaturally malignant inherent in his mortal remains, a notion still further strengthened by a most unjust paragraph (1472) in the Russian code, which declares the last will and testament of a suicide to have no legal validity.
Drought, too, as well as pestilence, is ascribed to the evil agency of vampires, which "milk the clouds," and hinder the falling of the dew. In 1887 the South Russian province of Cherson began to suffer from drought soon after a peasant had hanged himself in the village of Ivanovka, the inhabitants of which, assuming a causative connection between the aridity and the self-homicide, poured water on the grave while uttering the following words: "I sprinkle, I pour; may God send a shower, bring on a little rainfall, and relieve us from misery!" As this invocation failed to produce the desired effect, the body was taken up and inhumed again in a gorge outside of the village. In some districts the corpse is disinterred, beaten on the head, and drenched with water poured through a sieve; in others it is burned.
General Code, vol. xiii, edition of 1892, cited by Löwenstimm.
Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.
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