Burying an important Moscow reality

364 Mourners at Moscow cemetery 960419KE13Try to imagine that you are reading a news report about complicated, emotional issues linked to death and the burial of the dead in the city of Jerusalem.

Now imagine that the reporter, while covering these issues, totally ignores the role of Judaism in that culture. Now, I realize that Jerusalem is a very diverse and even secular city, but can you imagine that?

Now, Istanbul is a remarkably diverse and secular city, too. But can you imagine anyone writing a page-one news feature on death and burial without talking to Muslim clerics or devout believers? Can you imagine the story totally avoiding any of Islam’s unique beliefs about the rites of death and burial of the dead?

Or how about Mexico City? There’s another giant urban area that, in anyone’s book, is very secular and contains a wide variety of believers and unbelievers. Yet it’s hard to imagine a reporter writing this story without talking to Roman Catholic thinkers and leaders. Do we need to mention Rome? Paris? How about a London-based story on these topics that does not feature input from Anglicans and, in particular, the popularity of cremation among Anglicans (which represents a major change among historic, liturgical churches)?

You may have figured out where I am going with this. The Baltimore Sun recently printed a page-one news feature by foreign correspondent Erika Niedowski that began like this:

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.

This is a good story and it’s packed with all kinds of interesting details. However, I thought — this will not surprise regular readers of this blog — it was interesting that Niedowski included absolutely zero references to the role of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in shaping Russian culture and its view of death and dying and, now that you mention it, its rites and traditions linked to burial.

Active Orthodox believers would, for example, feel stung by the reporter’s editorial insertion of the word “thankfully” in that reference to cremation. Obviously, cremation is a good thing in this story — due to the cemetery space crisis. But did the reporter realize that the Orthodox, in keeping with traditions that date to the early church, actively oppose cremation? While doing background research, did Niedowski talk to any priests or historians about the culture’s burial traditions and where they came from?

vagankov cemetryThe Orthodox are not alone in this belief. Here is a summary from a Scripps Howard column I did on a related topic not that long ago, linked to Roman Catholics and the issue of cremation. For most believers, I argued:

The hardest liturgical changes to accept are those linked to emotional events at the crossroads of life — birth, marriage and death.

“Cremation is no longer considered shocking to most Catholics,” said Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report. “But, overwhelmingly, traditional Catholics would lean toward a traditional burial. The older the Catholic, the more likely they would remember the traditions against cremation.”

The modern Catechism of the Catholic Church hints at the ancient roots of this controversy, noting that cremation is permitted, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”

There’s one other clue in the Sun story that Niedowski and her editors simply didn’t check the religion side of this at all. Way down in the story, there is a reference to the fact that the Russian government continues offering one benefit from the Soviet era — the entitlement to a “free” burial.

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.

Now, that “cheap” coffin isn’t, by any chance, made out of simple pine or some other humble wood? If so, this would be the coffin of choice for the Orthodox or, Catholics might recall, for the burial of most popes. Once again, there is a chance that this unexplained detail in the report is linked to the dominant faith in Mother Russia, whether the reporter knows it or not.

P.S. By the way, it is interesting to do some Google searches for photographs of the major cemetaries in Moscow, including those mentioned in the report. Two such images are used in this post. Very secular looking, wouldn’t you say?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://dkizer.blogspot.com Drew Kizer

    As a frequent visitor to Moscow I can tell you that religion, including the Russian Orthodox Church, plays an insignificant role in Russian life. Those cemeteries depicted in the post are but relics of a time before the Bolsheviks. Communism, which according to Marx does away with the need for God, destroyed the faith of Russian people. Sadly, few in Russia turn to faith when facing death.

  • Pastor

    I’ve traveled throughout Europe and Russia and find that cemeteries tell a unique story of the people’s lives and their faith. When I’ve taken tour groups to Europe, I always take them to cemeteries. Participants on these tours have always commented after the trip how important the cemetery stop was in their view of the culture.

    For example, sometime check out a Russian military cemetery and see how it depicts WWII. Even beyond faith, they depict history and life.

    Cemeteries continue to be on my list of stops wherever I go.

    Pax Christi, Pastor

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is tragic how in this country Eastern Orthodox Christians are treated as if they do not even exist. For decades now, in the spirit of ecumenism, America’s religions have been listed as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Now many sources are graciously expanding the list:: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Moslem. Sorry Christian Orthodox–you lose again!!

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Blame Will Herberg.

    This mindset is also linked to the insistence on lumping LDS, Friends, Unitarians and JWs with “Protestants”, on the ground that being not-Catholic overrides everything else; possibly with the infuriating use of “Catholic” without objective referents — does this mean they are sure they are not-Protestant?; and another set of people who appear to use “Catholic” for “anyone who has the effrontery to actually believe the stuff and can not be credibly labeled ‘fundamentalist’ (C.S. Lewis and Sydney Carter are “Catholic”.)

  • Richard Barrett

    Dn. John, I’m involved with Orthodox campus ministry where I live, and truer words were never spoken. We have the dangdest time getting “in the loop” and staying there with respect to things going on on campus–for example, the university used to collect information on student religious preference, and our priest would get a list of the students who had indicated Orthodox. Now, it’s no longer even listed as an option on the cards students get, and there is no write-in space. One student wrote in Orthodox anyway, and her name got sent to one of the Jewish student centers. Every year during orientation week, there’s an expo of the student religious groups, and we’ve only been able to participate the last couple of years because we’ve forcibly and insistently made contact with the people organizing it (some of whom have never returned phone calls or e-mails) and asked, “How do we get involved?” Last year we were under the impression that we were now “on the list”, as it were, but then we had to go through the whole rigamarole again this year.

    What’s worse is that there’s a certain apathy among some Orthodox who seem to think that the more we try to present ourselves as a distinct group, the more we will be ignored as irrelevant; however, they also cknowledge that the more we try to fit in, the more we will be ignored because we are under the radar.

    I’m reminded of an Archdiocese of Chicago representative who told the press a couple of years ago in reference to hemorrhaging cradle Catholics to Pentecostal congregations: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.”

    So the question becomes–in order to be positively acknowledged, in the mainstream press or otherwise, what does it take?


  • Larry Rasczak

    “So the question becomes—in order to be positively acknowledged, in the mainstream press or otherwise, what does it take?”

    The fault lies not in you, but in the press.

    The Baby Boomers were bad enough, what with the “sexual revolution”, “God is Dead”, “Hell no we won’t go”, Studio 54, hedonisim, drugs, no fault divorce, and the total abominations known as disco and “rock ballads”.

    (You want to know why the USSR had 10,000 nuclear warheads pointed at us in the 70s? I’ll tell you why…THEY HAD TASTE!! That’s why! Go listen to an oldies station… can you really blame them for wanting to nuke us? Can you? Even after The BeeGees and “Air Supply” and KISS’s “Beth”? Come on, be honest….they had a point…admit it.)

    But at least the Baby Boomers had (for the most part) actually attended a Church service or two before they went off to college and got their minds melted on LSD, Doonsberry, and Journalisim classes built around “All The President’s Men”.

    Now we are dealing with more and more people who were raised in households that were largely or totally religion free. These are people who grew up in the 70′s getting all their moral instruction from Aaron Spelling’s TV shows, or the 80′s getting all their moral instruction from MTV….(shudder). They really DO think that “Sunday was made for the New York Times”… (and “Morning Edition” of course…). (double shudder)

    So if all they know about Church is what they saw (or didn’t see) on television… well sadly they may literally have just never heard of “The Orthodox Church”. (What, you expect them to have heard about you in our “God Free” public schools or something?? )

    Seriously though, I suspect these people are simply totally unaware of the Orthodox Church, it’s thousands of years of history, or anything at all related to it.

    I think you just need to educate people that you do exist. I know it is sad, but that’s the way America is today.

    (And with that Larry exits to go listen to some Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin’s “Nocturne” or something..)

  • Larry Rasczak


    Something just struck me about your “under the radar” comment.

    You HAVE been under the radar. Use this.

    For years religion has been getting slammed in the media. All Protestants are ignorant, anti-science, bigoted Elmer Gantry types. All Catholics are either lapsed (if they are the hero) or corrupt (if they are The Thorn Birds or The Sopranos) or pedophile priests. I’m sure you’ve seen it. (When was the last time you saw a popular or teen movie where the priest was the good guy? I mean since The Exorcist?)

    Meanwhile, the Orthodox have been under the media radar.

    You have yet to be stereotyped by the media. You are not uncool (yet). You are fresh, new, AND yet tradtional. Something people haven’t seen before. Something they might be curious about. You’re a kind of church they have never seen before. Maybe they should check you out.

    Maybe you can use that.

    Good luck

  • http://raphael.doxos.com Huw Raphael

    Bad coverage yes… although the author would have had to have covered rather a bit more than “oops no room”.

    For example, even the religion angle is not as black and white as you seem to want to draw it: According to the OCA website, while there is no tradition that promotes Cremation, Cremation may be done with the blessing of the local hierarch.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As Oscar Wilde would say, the only thing worse than being satirized on television is not being satirized on television.
    “Is outrage! Was situation comedies in nineteenth century Russia?”

  • MattK

    Hey! What’s wrong with Air Supply? “I’m all out of love. I’m so lost without you.” happen to be very deep and meaningful words. And the Kremlin knew it. Notice, Air Supply released their “Lost in Love” album (with that very spooky black pyramid on the cover) in 1980. The hit single “All Out of Love” was a message from freedom-loveing people of America that they had had enough of that thesis-antithesis-synthesis-class-struggle-animal-farm-little red-book-black-jammies-bread-lines stuff.

    But did the commies listen? Noooooo. It was like they didn’t even know who Casy Kasem was!

    So Air Supply delivered another message, the “two” of the “one-two” punch,if you will. In 1981 the album, “The One That You Love” floated to the top of the charts. Is there any mystery about the meaning of the hot air baloon on the cover of the album? HAH! There wasn’t for Breznev. He tried to hang on but inside that baloon was “air” of a different nature. It was the “air” of truth. “Here I Am, The One That You Love” made public for the first time that Leonid Brezhnev really loved the Free World. But instead of embracing liberty and responding to the (barely) coded invitation in “Don’t Turn Me Away” the commie leader repressed his true feelings. Air Supply warned him in their song “Sweet Dreams” that he risked the long sleep of death if he didn’t at least try “Keeping the Love Alive”.

    Air Supply had accomplished its mission. There was no escape for Breshnev as the pressure inside the Krmlin increased from the Summer of 1981 and into 1982. In July 1982 he was forced to passionately deny to the entire Politburo (in a secret meeting on the shores of the Caspian Sea) that “This Heart Belongs to Me” was a reference to Leonid being controled by a certain young CIA officer named Valerie Plame. The KGB did not belive him and he caught the “flu” and died in 1982.

  • MattK

    “According to the OCA website, while there is no tradition that promotes Cremation, Cremation may be done with the blessing of the local hierarch.”

    Hmmm. An exercize of economia after a funeral for the sake of extenuating circumstances can hardly be called a blessing. And the matter is not just a lack of proscription, as you seem to indicate.

    The practice of inhumation is the positive Tradition of the Orthodox Church. Even Julian the Apostate remarked on how Christians consider it their duty to bury the dead.

    In the Biblical testimony the people of God always bury the dead except for when there are extenuationg circumstances (e.g. plague, war). In fact, proper burial of the dead can lead to archangels presenting our prayers to God: Holy Raphael said to Tobias “When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord”.

    It is important to remember that it is pagans, even in the modern period who push for the acceptence of cremation. For instance, in Serbia in 1829 it was a Mason named Kuyundzhich who agitated for cremation and engaged in a newspaper debate with Archimandrite (later Bishop) Simeon (Stankovich). In France it was the anti-Christian first republic, ifluenced by the Masons Didert and Voltaire that first legalized cremation in europe. And the Masons Garibaldi and Mazzini actually buit the first Crematorium in Milano sometine in the late 1800s. They were masons, too.

    But back to the practice of the Orthodox. The Archpriest Victor (Memory Eternal!) wrote, “One of the most basic decisions in funeral planning is what to do with the body. However, for the Orthodox Christian there is no choice: according to the Holy Canons of the Church, the body of a deceased Christian must be returned to the earth. Cremation is specifically forbidden. The body is placed in a casket and set in a grave.”

  • Maureen

    The slippers must be culturally important, somehow. There’s a Russian idiom about being “dead in white slippers”, or words to that effect….