Ashes to Ashes
A new trend seems to be emerging in Russia as more people become interested in the subject of death and funeral tradition. For example, in Novosibirsk there is a Museum of World Funeral Culture, the only one of its kind in the country. In Perm, enthusiasts have set up the first all-Russian social network for the deceased, and branches of a necropolis research society collect and systematize information about graves in many Russian cities.This interest in death is easy to explain: Russia is a country with a high mortality rate. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, the number of deaths per year per 1,000 people is 14. This rate is comparable with that of poor African countries ruled by dictators, and is much higher than in the rest of world, including Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Latin America and the Middle East. The only region in Russia where the mortality rate is relatively low is the North Caucasus.
This gloomy picture of high mortality in the country results from an extremely high death rate for men, usually due to suicide, murder, traffic accidents and alcohol. “In Russia, relatives of the deceased always want to organize an extravagant funeral, regardless of the family’s income. It is a tradition. Nobody is interested in ‘basic’ solutions. Everybody wants something special, but the cost starts from 25,000 rubles ($800). There are coffins that cost over a million rubles ($33,000),” said Aleksey Koshlyakov, a spokesman for the Museum of World Funeral Culture. He pointed out some new developments in how people are buried in Russia – from special lifts that hang coffins to graves and sarcophaguses with doors, to everlasting colorful ceramic portraits for headstones and funeral supermarkets where relatives can purchase all the goods and services they need.
The Museum of World Funeral Culture in Novosibirsk was established by private investors some ten years ago. It conducts research related to funeral tradition, the culture of preserving memory and the history of monuments in Russia, Europe, Asia, North and Latin America and the Arabic East. The first item in the collection was an antique engraving bought by the founder of the Novosibirsk Crematorium Sergey Yakushin in the UK.
Now the museum’s collection consists of thousands of exhibits that are placed in two buildings with a total area of 1,600 square meters. The museum includes sections of mortuary rites and traditions, the history of public and mass burial sites, a photo gallery of cemeteries in Russia, attributes of funeral services, representations of death in paintings, literature and cinema, death-related coins and stamps, a garage with ancient funeral horse carriages and a collection of mourning wardrobe. “The most popular exhibit is a collection of mourning dresses, which includes more than 160 pieces. We showed it in many West-European cities, and it was always successful. Next year we plan to exhibit this collection in the Louvre. The engravings gallery is also highly popular. It includes more than 5,000 prints from the 17th to the 19th centuries, not only from Russia, but from other countries and cultures as well,” Koshlyakov said.
Another unusual project in Russia is a social network for the deceased called “Pomni Pro” (“Remember About”), created by a Perm-based company Soyus. “It is silly, but all physical objects eventually disappear. Buildings get destroyed, trees dry up, people depart. Only the most famous heroes get noted in the history of humankind. But the destiny of most average people is oblivion. Now everyone has the opportunity to create a virtual page for the memory of a dead relative or friend thanks to modern technology,” said Dmitry Shklyaev, the organizer of the project. “Information about the departed, including his or her biography, thoughts, emotions, pictures and videos can be kept in electronic storage forever,” he added.
Every user of “Pomni Pro” can create a virtual page for a dead relative, friend or some famous person. Users can also create communities and give the deceased presents, such as candles, sweets, cigarettes and a glass of vodka covered with a piece of bread. The social network, created this year, already boasts several thousand pages. It was nominated for the Runet Prize for top Russian language Web sites as the best start-up. The network includes pages for the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin, writer Leo Tolstoy, composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, poet Segrey Esenin and many other famous people. There is also a directory with information about funeral services, cemeteries, funeral homes and churches.
The Russian society of necropolis researchers tries to preserve the memory of dead people as well. The members of this NGO, which was set up in 2007, conduct research on cemeteries, look for graves of famous compatriots and help their relatives to maintain the graves. The enthusiastic researchers set up 16 thematic Web sites, including “Celebrities’ graves,” “Moscow tombs,” “Sport necropolis” (devoted to Soviet athletes), “Space memorial” (for astronauts and rocket engineers), “St. Petersburg necropolis,” “Crimea virtual necropolis” and others.
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