It’s a mid-week spring day in Tbilisi and we have joined Dali Berdzenishvili and her family for a special picnic lunch.
There’s a zesty looking spread covering most of a yellow and blue tablecloth: heaps of khachapuri (cheese bread), blinchiki (meat rolls), sliced meats and sulguni cheese, salads, a trademark Georgian dish of pickled greens known as jonjoli, a bowl of strawberries and a few slices of leftover Easter paska cake. For drinks, there are several bottles of semi-sweet red and a bottle of homemade grape juice.
Dali says her late husband, Zviad, loved a picnic like this. And it is Zviad who brings them all here – because they are eating next to his grave.
In Georgia, there is much life in death. Dining with the dead, so to speak, is just one of many ways in which Georgians remember and celebrate those who have passed away. They are never forgotten – one of the obligatory toasts at a Georgian supra (feast) is to the dead. And when they visit their last resting place, many Georgians like to eat and drink with them too.
The most popular day for graveside feasting is Easter Monday, when cemeteries are often so full of visitors, the living outnumber the dead. People often pour wine onto the grave, so those below can join in.
It’s a way to stay connected, Dali explains. “We were together for 43 years,” says Dali, gently wiping away a tear. “I miss him every day. But this is a way we can all be closer to him.” Dali has placed flowers and candles in front of his headstone, which flicker and smoke as they eat. Zviad died in 2013, and the family comes to eat with him several times a year, including on New Year’s Day and his birthday.
When we visit, it’s the Day of the Dead, when Orthodox Christians in Georgia traditionally celebrate those who have passed away. It falls on the second Tuesday after Orthodox Easter. They have invited the family priest, Mama Daviti. “It ensures the salvation of the souls of the deceased,” he explains after saying prayers over Zviad’s grave. “They will then be ready to help their other relatives into the next world.” He fills a plate from the table, intermittently checking his mobile phone.
Zviad’s two children, Nino and Levan, have come too with their spouses.
The mood is both somber and convivial, a celebration of someone’s life and a family get-together. Levan acts as the tamada, or toastmaster. When he finds out where I am from, he offers a toast to “friendship between Britain and Georgia and to all British people.” As the last of the candles sputter out, the family packs up the picnic boxes before heading down the hill, leaving a bag of red-painted Easter eggs on Zviad’s grave and the leftover wine.
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