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Põlva Parish, Estonia

The Tree Crosses of Rosma Forest

Hundreds of small crosses have been carved into the bark of the trees outside this small Estonian village. 

In southern Estonia, there is a funeral custom that entails cutting a cross into the bark of a tree to commemorate the lost loved one, and keep their soul from coming back to haunt them. The forest near the cemetery of Rosma village has around 200 such trees, that may prevent hauntings but still look somewhat ghostly.

The way the rite usually plays out is that, on the way to the cemetery, the funeral procession stops at a certain tree, and usually a male descendant cuts the cross into the bark. In some areas there is only one tree for cutting crosses into, and it is used by the whole community, in some areas different families have their own tree so that all the members can be marked on the bark of that tree when their time comes. Also in some areas it is customary to use a pine to cut a cross for a male member and spruce for a female member (occasionally birches and oaks are also used).

There are many ideas of why these crosses are made. One origin of the tradition is that the soul uses the tree to go climb up to heaven. However the main belief behind the tradition is that it prevents the soul from returning to haunt others. Of course it is also simply an evocative memorial gesture to remember the dead by.

Unfortunately many of the trees and forests have been cut down in the modern era, and the Rosma forest was also partly damaged due to road extension works. Still, this practice of marking a tree with a cross is still observed by the older generations, so new trees with crosses cut into the bark are still showing up.