The Graveyard and the Table

The Catholic-Orthodox Borderland in Poland and Belarus

by Justyna Straczuk (Author)
©2021 Monographs 252 Pages
Open Access


The book is based on long-term ethnographic research in the Polish-Belarusian borderland. It examines the dynamics of symbolic boundaries between the Catholic and Orthodox believers in their everyday lives. By analyzing the space of local cemeteries, rituals, and attitudes related to death, eating practices, and food sharing, the author points to the changing sense of ethnic identity and the feeling of familiarity and otherness. Confessionally mixed neighborhoods and families enable different forms of religious bivalency and become a crucial factor in bridging and crossing ethnic boundaries. Socio-cultural norms and social relations shape the ethnic identity of the borderland’s residents more than the institutional frames of both churches.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction to the English-Language Edition
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Concepts, Research Problems, the Field, and Method
  • The Borderland, Ethnicity, Multiculturalism
  • What is Culture on the Ethnic and Cultural Borderland?
  • The Concept of Ethnicity in the Context of the “Cultural Distinctiveness of Ethnic Groups”
  • Multiculturalism on the Borderland
  • Borderland Anthropology
  • The Socio-Historical Background of Field Research
  • The Mythization of the Borderland World
  • Information about Localities
  • On Methodology and Field Work
  • Establishing “Human” Relationships
  • Conversation
  • Technological “Extensions”
  • Part II: The Cemetery and Forms of Memory: The Dynamics of Denominational Borders
  • “There would be graves, and they would remember, yes…” – Or the Materiality of Memory
  • Cemetery Boundaries – Community Boundaries?
  • Collective Memory
  • The Individualization of Memory
  • “Uniformly, but we in our way and they in theirs” – Or the Relativity of Differences
  • Practicalism and Metaphysics: The Traditions of the Western and Eastern Churches
  • Structural Community – Religious Community
  • Peasant Death
  • Denomination as a Family Trait
  • Prestige Asymmetry: Catholic Villages vs. Orthodox Villages
  • Denominational Equivalence – Mixed Villages
  • The Difference between Polish and Belarusian Areas
  • “But why divide things here?” – Or About Annulling Borders
  • About the Cemetery’s Family Structure
  • The Rules of Burial – Crossing Borders
  • Cyrillic Dialogue with the Latin Alphabet
  • Binominality, Duality
  • Conclusions
  • Part III: The Community of the Table: The Integrative Properties of Food
  • Food as a Research Topic
  • The Differentiating and Integrating Properties of Food
  • Food as a Topic of Conversation and an Element of Ethnographic Experience
  • Food as an Element of the Peasant Ethos
  • The Earth-Provider
  • “Consumption Minimalism”
  • Family: A Sharing Community
  • The Experience of Hunger – Memory of Taste
  • Food as a Metonymy for Life
  • Everyday Life and Holidays
  • Generational Change – Breaking Tradition
  • Food as a Material Sign of Social Ties
  • The Family Circle and the Domestic Sphere
  • The Family-Neighborhood Community
  • Divisions and Borders – Nobility and Peasants
  • Food and Denominational Differences
  • Conclusions
  • Recapitulation: The Transitivity, Situationality and Graduability of the Borderland
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names
  • Illustrations

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I would like to thank all of my interlocutors for their kindness, hospitality and wonderful stories, without whom this work could never have been completed, especially Maria Serafinowicz, Władysława Leonczyk and Zuzanna Kozłowska from Papiernia; Teresa and Dionizy Biernacki from Rouby; Walentyna Rychlicka, Wiera Nowicka and Walentyna Zajko from Radziwoniszki; Janina Uszko from Feliksowo; Felicja Skorupska, Eugenia Szkurynowa and Janina Skorupska from Topolany, and Irena Żerel from Białystok.

I am also indebted to my fellow researchers, my constant companions in the ups and downs of ethnography: Kasia Dąbek, Kasia Dołęgowska-Urlich, Kasia Kolasa, Danka Życzyńska-Ciołek, Renata Banasińska, Małgosia Żerel and Małgosia Litwinowicz. In this book, I make great use of their experience and the fruits of their field work in general. I am particularly grateful to Anna Engelking for the research trips we have taken together and for our many discussions; it was from her that I learned the field researcher’s workshop. Many of the comments and conclusions contained in this book are, more or less consciously, borrowed or developed from her original insights and intuitions, which she has always generously and selflessly shared.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Professor Roch Sulima for his inspiring texts about peasant culture and more, and for his invaluable assistance in conceptualizing my work; to Professor Joanna Kurczewska for the substantive and spiritual support from this “understanding” sociologist; to Professor Elżbieta Smułkowa for the solid interdisciplinary training she provided me in borderland research; and to Professor Michał Buchowski for his thoughtful reading of this text and valuable comments from the perspective of an anthropologist.

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Introduction to the English-Language Edition

Fifteen years have passed since the book first appeared in Polish in 2006. Much has changed since then, both in the theory and research methodology of the borderlands, and in the everyday life of the inhabitants of the Orthodox-Catholic borderland in Poland and Belarus.

When this book was written, Polish sociology was dominated by the research trend that conceptualized the cultural borderland as a neighborhood of ethnic groups. Each group was to be a carrier of a separate culture and the resulting separate group identity. In the first, theoretical chapter, I mainly argue against that dominant concept, which in no way corresponded to what, as an ethnographer, I was able to observe directly in the field. The inhabitants of mixed denominational villages in no way seemed to form two separate groups. On the contrary, what one could observe and deduce from numerous interviews showed that it was the local neighborhood community that remained the most important structure in everyday life. Within its framework, the boundaries that result from belonging to separate churches were constantly negated. The borderland turned out to be not so much a meeting place for separate ethnic groups, but a dynamic process of delimiting and sharing the space of everyday life.

The constructionist nature of the frontier is a fairly common concept today. When preparing the text for this English edition, I decided to retain this perhaps slightly outdated polemic. It is a record of a certain style of thinking based on the achievements of prewar Polish sociology and ethnology, including the works of Józef Obrebski, Florian Znaniecki, and Stanisław Ossowski, and on the convergent concepts put forth by individuals better-known in the West, including Fredrik Barth and Anthony Cohen. In view of the vast English-language literature on ethnicity, inspirations cited from the temporal and geographical periphery show that similar conclusions can be drawn in very different ways, derived from different premises and bearing different pedigrees and surnames. For me, however, the basis of the concept of the borderland presented here was primarily practical knowledge taken from the field, which made us look critically at contemporary theoretical positions on so-called “Ethnic relations” and to seek other theoretical justifications.

What I find most valuable about this work, however, and what prompted me to publish this book in English many years after its first edition, is its ethnographic material. Today it is basically a historical record: the research was carried ←11 | 12→out in 1993–2001, and many of our older interlocutors are no longer alive. The record of conversations with them is a picture of the still-existent world of a traditional rural community and its proper way of thinking and acting. It is also a testimony to the diversity of human experience. The generation of the oldest interlocutors, remembering the times before the Second World War, was burdened with a special historical experience. Its members witnessed a series of traumatic changes: from feudal structures imposed by the Polish state, through revolutionary and traumatic war experiences, the aggression of the Soviet Union and related political repression and deportations, shifting borders, repatriation and separation of families, the collectivization of villages and the difficult life on collective farms, to perestroika, the advent of an independent Belarusian state, Alexander Lukashenko’s victory and his rule in subsequent years. In the face of all these political and social changes, the inner world of the rural community, along with the principles of good-neighborly coexistence, remained virtually unchanged. Perhaps those traumatic experiences actually strengthened a conservative worldview and established a distance to the outside world by shaping resistance to various ideologies and leading to the continuation of life according to principles of cooperation developed over centuries. For us, the young ethnographers that we were then, our interactions with such a world and its people were an important and instructive experience. I hope that at least a part of this reality is recorded and remembered in this work.

The way we worked in the field also influenced the specific structure of this book, in which the main voice is given to the interlocutors themselves, allowing them to speak on their own behalf. It is also a kind of continuation of the Polish ethnographic school, derived from Malinowski and his predecessors, which placed special emphasis on the linguistic and semantic analysis of the respondents’ statements, in an attempt to understand different ways of thinking and functioning in the world. In times marked by numerous open conflicts on the religious, ethnic and national plane, our exhibition of a part of the world in which the social norm is dominated by the constant development of principles of harmonious coexistence over and above existing differences and divisions, may constitute an important message, indeed a lesson for the future.

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In this work, I will focus on issues related to the specific cultural and social situation of a denominational borderland, more specifically on the manifestations of cultural frontier in the everyday life of inhabitants of several villages in the Catholic-Orthodox border region shared by Poland and Belarus. When writing about this world and these people, I will deliberately use the fairly neutral term “denominational borderland” instead of other ambiguous and semantically dense terms – such as ethnic, national, or cultural borderlands – which are most often used when describing areas located on the two sides of Poland’s eastern frontier. The Catholic-Orthodox border, covering an area under the shared influence of the Western and Eastern Churches, is a concrete concept that can be determined both geographically and historically. However, it is neither a specific territorial area nor its historical conditions that will be the subject of this analysis. Rather, this study is an examination of the imaginary and mental borders at work in people’s minds, borders which are more symbolic than concrete and are subject to constant fluctuations, shifts and redefinitions.

Using the terms “Catholic” and “Orthodox,” I also intentionally avoid national qualifiers unless they are related to the particular issues at hand. I place great emphasis on the disproportionate nature of both denominational and linguistic criteria in the national or ethnic self-determination of the local inhabitants. After all, the issues of identification – understood as Antonina Kłoskowska1 did as national self-determination as opposed to identity that encompasses a much wider range of consciousness – are not of direct or even indirect interest in my work. Here, even religious affiliation itself is an often unstable and ambiguous distinguishing feature. Despite the clear border that exists on a map, the personal border between Catholics and Orthodox can be just as fluid. Not only in the case of a mixed denominational village or a mixed family but also in the case of individual people, denominational distinctions can become blurred, such that religious indeterminacy or religious duality becomes possible. Each inhabitant of this area, with his/her individual origin, life experience and social environment, is the carrier of a separate borderline situation, one which can only be described idiosyncratically and not systematically.

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The place where everyday life “unfolds” at the borderland described in this study are several villages along the Catholic-Orthodox border where field ethnographic research was carried out in Belarus in 1993–2001 and in Poland in 2001–2003. Above all, I want to show how the key institution of peasant culture – the family-neighborhood structure – “works” in borderland conditions; how the community maintains bonds along and across denominational differences resulting from kinship and close contact. Due to the strong familial and neighborhood ties which constitute rural communities, cultural differences are most often neutralized by social interaction which involves crossing denominational boundaries. The common ground here is the socially recognized and respected values of peasant culture through which denominational divisions often lose their significance.

This work is divided into three parts. In Part I, I present a short overview of important issues related to the subject of the borderland and multiculturalism. I propose a departure from the paradigm by which the borderland is studied as “a neighborhood of ethnic groups” understood as separate cultural entities “colliding” on the borderland. Instead I propose the study of the borderland culture as an organic whole together with its manifestations, defined here as situational, transitive, indistinguishable. In this part, I also discuss selected problems from the historical and social context of the terrain under examination and present the applied research method.

The second and third parts of this work are devoted to detailed analyses of two areas of cultural life – death and food – which, though they have long been the subject of anthropological examination, have not yet been described in detail in the context of borderland culture. In this regard, I focus only on those aspects of dying and eating that allow me to show how cultural differences related to these universal spheres of life – in everyday behavior, ritual observances and their material manifestations – are organized within the local community of the denominational borderland.

In Part II, I analyze the space of rural cemeteries, which exhibit some important elements of borderland reality as well as the characteristic features of peasant memory and how it has changed over the last century. A cemetery is a place that perfectly reflects the village social structure: organized in family clusters, it is at the same time an indication of the existence of denominational boundaries (divided into Catholic and Orthodox cemeteries) and the crossing of those boundaries (the burial of dissenters based not on denominational bonds but on family and local bonds, etc.). Analysis of the cemetery infrastructure – the nature of tombstones and inscriptions, the mixing of alphabets, bilingual versions of names and surnames – proves that cultural duality (“bivalence”), transitivity, ←14 | 15→and indistinguishability are features inherent in the borderland reality and the phenomenon known here as borderland culture.

The same applies to food, which will be analyzed in Part III. Food turns out to be one of the most open, “inclusive” elements of culture because it is easy to share and exchange. As such, food is an important instrument for creating social bonds. The community of the table, being a functional element of the system of communication, allows for the marking, organization and maintenance of social relations, and it thus directly indicates the limits of familiarity and strangeness. All of the rituals, etiquette, and scenarios of eating behaviors refer directly to the values held in a given community. Food, which has always played a role in important aspects of family and rural life, also serves as indicators of extraordinary moments in time. What is important here is the distinction between daily food, the same for the entire community, and ritual food, which differentiates the behavior of Orthodox Christians and Catholics. It is at this level that symptomatic situations arise in which a dynamic aspect of the sense of community comes into view, which manifests itself depending on, or independently of, cultural differences.

A few words about the spelling of oral statements and the use of abbreviations. This work contains a large number of quotes from conversations with borderland inhabitants. Conversations conducted in Polish, Belarusian or Russian, and often a mixture of the three, were written in part phonetically, as they were heard, without the use of standard transcription and without grammatical corrections.2 In this way, not wanting to lose any of their originality and uniqueness, I tried to keep the relatively “natural” linguistic forms of oral expression.

All quotes from the interviews are provided with brief information about the interlocutor, coded as follows: [country/locality/gender/denomination/date of birth], for example: [P.Top.k.pr.25] = [Poland/Topolany/female/Orthodox/1925]; [B.Pie.m.kat.20]=[Białoruś/Pieluńcy/male/Catholic/1920].

In the text, I also use abbreviations for the names of the most frequently quoted ethnographic sources:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (October)
religious diversity ethnic identity death rituals food practices peasant culture folk religiousness
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 252 pp., 33 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Justyna Straczuk (Author)

Justyna Straczuk is a professor of sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the author and co-author of four books and several articles on borderland issues, sociology of food and anthropology of emotions. She has conducted ethnographic research in Belarus, Lithuania and Poland for over twenty-five years.


Title: The Graveyard and the Table
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