The shift of regimes in Hungary was, on a symbolic level, marked by various public rituals. Monuments of the former socialist system were pulled down, removed or destroyed and hundreds of new ones were erected. There seemed to have been a war going on in the symbolic field parallel to a peaceful transition into a new regime. A considerable proportion of the inauguration of new monuments was accompanied by mortuary rituals, literal or symbolic reburials of long-dead human bodies. In most cases the dead were victims of the revolution of 1956 and the two World Wars. Victims of World War II and the revolution of 1956 had had no monuments before this time. These rituals were, on the local as well as on the national level, promoted by those who came into power after the first democratic elections of 1990. Besides stone statues and memorial crosses many such events were centred on a particular type of object, a carved wooden burial post of peasant origin.
The wooden grave post, commonly called kopjafa, has a special aura, and public perception attaches to it various layers of meaning that have turned it into a particularly adequate accessory of political rituals during the early 1990s. My main focus here is on the wooden burial post, the nature of the event it assisted, and the reasons why and how it fit in the legitimisation of the new social order.
A foreigner may stand somewhat puzzled in front of the massive appearance of wooden grave posts all over Hungary especially shortly after the first democratic elections of 1990. Their use as world war memorials and monuments of the revolution of 1956 clearly shows that they are often and commonly associated with the tragic death of heroes. However, meditating over what they stand for in more than just one instance, even those familiar with the cultural-historical context of Hungary could possibly have difficulties in drawing the clear-cut and accurate semantic outline of these objects. Tamás Hofer described the wooden grave posts as symbolic objects with a special aura, a complex web of meanings with a wide spectrum of associated ideas. In spite of uncertain elements of this aura, it is possible to name, locate, and isolate some of its relatively stable and constant characteristic features.
They are closely associated with Hungarianness, through their alleged Székely origin with the entire body of the Hungarian people including Hungarians who live in neighbouring countries, especially in Romania. They are connected with Hungary’s past and ancestry (and possible present-day points of self-identification with the East as opposed to the West and its pervasive civilisation). They are also related with death, and above all tragic death (probably due to their traditional function and cemetery location).
Originally, wooden grave posts were seen as part and parcel of certain segments of traditional Hungarian peasant culture, the object of study for the positivist discipline of Hungarian ethnography. Since its late 19th century beginning ethnography has always paid much and specific attention to them. It was then and a little later in the early 20th century that some fundamental and up to the present day dominant and pervasive topics of interest were outlined by the forefathers of the discipline. Following the German example, the Hungarian scholarly quest for the spirit of Hungarianness embodied, among other things, in remnants of pre-Christian religious beliefs of the ancient Hungarians is also logically interested in death related practices and accompanying ritual objects, such as grave markers. An example is the peculiar forms such as the boat shaped wooden grave posts that are often interpreted as survivals of boat funerals, a mythological attribute of a particular phase in the Asian pre-history of Hungarians.
Carved wooden grave posts are not a Hungarian speciality as one could reasonably expect, since they exist in various other countries of Europe. This is true in spite of their association with the Székely, a cultural group of Hungarians today living in Romania. They have not been used exclusively by them. Even the term kopjafa itself refers to this process of social construction I am trying to describe. This term was the name the Székelys have given to one type of the carved wooden grave posts. It became a general name to denote this object when Transylvania with the Székely, the most Hungarian of all Hungarians, was separated from Hungary after World War I.
Several intertwined and mutually fortifying cultural traits seem to have made up the kopjafa-imagery. Although new ones are scarcely erected, old carved wooden grave posts can still be seen in their original context in Protestant village cemeteries all over the Hungarian language territory. It has been argued that the commonly accepted and widely used name of these objects intimately associate them with the cultural group of the Székely. The Székely have a large circle of associated ideas around them. These ideas have been projected onto the kopjafa as well. Thus they may be the descendants of Attila, the Hun, who has a longer history in the Carpathian Basin than Hungarians themselves. This ancestry is invisibly associated with their special (mainly medieval and not later) legal status as independent warriors and free defenders of the Eastern periphery of the Hungarian Kingdom. Protestant religion of the majority of the Székely, their independent status, and Hungarian Protestants’ association with the nineteenth century revolution against Catholic Austrians, strengthened and supported with “facts” the Székely‘s connection to the desired ideal of Hungarianness. Here desired Hungarianness can be identified with the love of freedom and national independence. From 1920 and the Trianon Treaty an interplay started between the symbolic fields of the Székely and the kopjafa mutually fortifying each other. Their most important characteristics bore reference to the memory of tragic and heroic death and loss.
I present three examples of kopjafa-shaped monuments: the historical memorial park on the Mohács battlefield; the burial posts made by the Inconnu Group for the heroes of the 1956 revolution; and a kopjafa set up in a Croatian village in Hungary where the local community erected it to commemorate their World War victims. I must also note that it was not during the shift of regimes that the burial post made its first public appearance outside its traditional context. These examples intend to show how the attributes donated to grave posts by ethnographers and literary men are used and become manifest in their power as national and political symbols in 20th century Hungarian contexts, for local and national communities alike.
The first kopjafa-forest was planted in 1976 near the southern town of Mohács over the field of the 1526 tragic battle lost against the Ottoman Empire. The hundreds of kopjafas carved by the Inconnu Groupin 1989 were set up in Budapest, over the explored and reburied mass graves of hundreds of disappeared and murdered victims of the 1956 revolution. The third kopjafawas put up in 1991 in an ethnic Croatian village in Hungary shortly after the newly elected local authorities came into office.
How could grave posts become the right symbols for each of these occasions? Intellectuals or groups of intellectuals are responsible for their import at all three sites. In Mohács an official with a previous training in ethnography promoted them. Defeat, possible Turkish and oriental connections (with an image of Suleiman himself), their capacity to commemorate the ruled through their peasant origin are those components of the kopjafa imagery which are put to practise at the Mohács-Sátorhely Historical Memorial Site. The 450th anniversary of the Mohács battle coincides with the 20th anniversary of the ‘counter revolution’ of 1956, as it was officially called at that time. The prohibited remembrance of the suppressed revolution of 1956 may have been tacitly present in the commemoration of the great defeat of 1526.
Inconnu‘ Group’s graphic designers made an attempt to survey ethnographic literature on grave posts. They wanted to commemorate all martyrs who were executed, and all those who died in street fights in 1956. They thought of the kopjafa burial tradition as specifically Hungarian and they found that these objects evoked simplicity and poverty even beyond life.
In the ethnic Croatian village of Dusnok a folk artist encouraged and supported by the ex-communist and re-elected mayor prepared the kopjafa right after the shift of regimes. It was on this occasion that the symbolic (re)burial of World War victims of the local community organised around the kopjafa most visibly represented the fortification of the mayor’s political power over the community. The impression was thus created that whatever that previously happened in the community had been a consequence of actions of the previous regime. His success was due to his ready recognition of the community’s need to commemorate his dead, and on the folk artist’s creative adaptation of the kopjafa imagery. He added Croatian motifs, Inconnu Group used religious symbols of different churches, and artists of the Mohács Memorial Site carved 16th century historical figures and objects on their kopjafas.
In all three cases kopjafas were erected in memory of heroes who fought enemies of the nation, against the Turks, the Soviets, and the communist dictatorship. The Székely warriors’s kopjafa also reminds us of defenders of national freedom. Directly or remotely, in the three cases cited above the threat to national freedom is associated with communism. Although it may not be true any longer, up to 1989 the kopjafa seemed to have been an anti-communist symbol shared by the then undifferentiated Hungarian political opposition.