Moscow in search of places for dead

Cemetery expansion plan aims to create enough space for the next 8 years

August 26, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- Larisa Korzhneva can't stop thinking about death - not her own, but everyone else's.

That's because Moscow, where she is deputy head of the municipal department that oversees burials, is running out of places to put its dead. And if she rests, she knows the deceased will soon have no place to.

"We don't have the right to sit still and do nothing," says Korzhneva, whose desk was recently outfitted with a huge bouquet of yellow and red irises that might have been fit for a funeral were they not looking a little dead themselves. "People will always need cemeteries."

About 130,000 of the more than 10.5 million who live in the Russian capital die every year. If Moscow does nothing, it will have enough space to bury its dead - about half of whom, thankfully, choose cremation - for five more years.

A graveyard construction plan under way, in which new cemeteries are being built and existing ones expanded beyond their walls, will give the city three years beyond that.

But, of course, the dead stop for no one.

Moscow's predicament is not unlike that of most metropolises across the globe. The shortage of cemetery space has become so acute in Britain that the minister in charge of cemeteries there announced this summer her support for so-called "double-decker" burials.

Moscow already employs that practice. But in an effort to dig up - quite literally - still more space, Moscow is seeking to use plots that have been used before. A draft law is under consideration to allow the city to reuse graves it deems abandoned.

There are plenty of them. During a recently launched graveyard inventory, which is far from complete, officials found that 10 percent have been abandoned, most for several generations.

In southeast Moscow at the Kalitnikovskoe cemetery, which is fairly typical of city graveyards, the plots are crammed together and almost without exception surrounded by iron fencing (good fences make good neighbors). The grass and weeds run so wild in some places that it's impossible to read, or even see, the gravestones.

In a few sections, the plots that are well-kept, with fresh marigolds or a wooden bench not yet looking weathered, are the ones that seem out of place. One can't help but be reminded during a visit here that the dead often are forgotten, once there is no one left to remember.

Moscow has 71 cemeteries in the city and the surrounding region, Moskovskaya Oblast. They cover roughly 4,600 acres, and each acre can hold about 770 bodies. All but one cemetery is managed by the state-owned company Ritual, to which the city has granted the exclusive right of burial - which means, in short, that death is governed by a monopoly.

Ritual takes care of the burial. But 20 semiprivate companies offer other "ritual" services, including providing coffins and headstones. A few dozen private enterprises sell caskets, wreaths, flowers and fencing. Prices are no longer state-regulated, prompting some to complain how expensive it is to die. The cemetery outside Kalitnikovskoe offers a 5 percent discount for veterans and the elderly.

By law, every citizen is entitled to a free burial, as was the case during Soviet times. But "free" means one that doesn't cost more than about $150, the amount the city provides relatives of the vast majority of people who die. That gets the paperwork, a coffin - a cheap one - and a cotton blanket and tapochki, or slippers, for the deceased. Veterans and the disabled get free headstones.

Korzhneva said the average family spends $450 to $550 - a considerable sum here - to bury a loved one, though the sky is the limit. In Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, two cemeteries sport several headstones on which are engraved life-size likenesses of purported Mafia men killed in the 1990s. The young men stand, James Dean-like, in fancy suits, or casual wear; one holds the keys to his Mercedes in his left hand. Some of the markers are said to have been fashioned from imported marble and cost up to $250,000.

People whose relatives are already interred in cemeteries are best off, since they inherit the right to be buried in the same cemetery. Those without such plots are frequently consigned to "open" cemeteries, often the largest and least attractive, well outside the city limits.

In an age when death is an industry, it's now possible to plan ahead by purchasing what is known as a commercial plot. It's similar to insurance.

"You can live as long as you like," said Korzhneva, "but at least you know you have a plot where you or your relatives can be buried."

Commoners do not have the privilege of being buried at Moscow's most prestigious cemetery, Novodevichy. The tree-filled grounds, lined with long rows of flowers, are reserved mostly for high-ranking military figures and other dignitaries. Modesty is not in fashion here. The grave of Nikita Krushchev, the former Soviet leader, is marked with a towering arrangement of stone blocks, black on the right, white on the left, with an oversized depiction of his head in between. Another grave has a bench fashioned in the shape of a swan.

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