About modern funeral in Russia

During our encounters with funeral directors in Europe and the US we found out that many of them have quite a vague idea about how funerals are organized in Russia (they are organized much the same way in Belarus and the Ukraine). So it’s high time to fill this blank page and write a short review about what a modern Russian funeral looks like.

At present the majority of population declare themselves Orthodox. So most funerals are set according to the Orthodox tradition. Besides that the Russian funeral tradition keeps experiencing some soviet influence which occasionally conflicts with the Orthodox tenets. Besides that the numerous folk beliefs survive the centuries of Christianity up to the present day and occasionally pop up especially in villages.

If a Russian citizen dies at home the family calls for a doctor or an ambulance. The medical staff pronounces the person dead and calls the police. The police as well inspect the body and issue the body inspection certificate. After this in most cases the body is transported to a mortuary by the decedent transportation service. In times past many bereaved families preferred to keep the body at home up to the day of funeral. This tradition still retains in some far-away districts of Russia. As for cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg there are minimum chances to keep the body at home due to the city medical laws.

Russian mortuaries

The pathology and forensic examination is performed at state pathology departments or forensic labs. These institutions invariably possess a mortuary so the decedent is placed in the mortuary right after the examination. That is why in Russia the term mortuary is synonymous to pathology department or forensic laboratory. One of the most important functions of both pathology and forensic institutions is issuing medical death certificates. Another function is preparing the deceased for the wake (embalming, make-up and so on). Funeral homes neither keep the body at their premises nor do the embalming. Family members or funeral director visit the mortuary to order the necessary services, provide clothes for the decedent, fix the day and time for the wake (which typically takes place in a separate hall of the mortuary).

There are as well a small number of the so-called receiving vaults typically situated near crematoria that keep the bodies up to the funeral day. Receiving vaults have no right to perform examination and issue medical death certificates. That is why all the bodies placed in the receiving vaults are initially carried to pathology departments or forensics for examination.

Russian funeral homes

Russian funeral homes do not perform the functions of mortuary. Their services are limited to funeral arrangement. The bereaved family always has a choice to arrange the funeral on their own or address a funeral home for assistance. Some families prefer to split the arrangements between themselves and the funeral home to cut on the expenses.

Services of funeral homes:

  • obtaining medical and certified death certificates and other documents,
  • providing caskets, floral decoration and other funeral items,
  • providing hearses and other automotive equipment,
  • ordering a new cemetery plot or cremation,
  • accompanying funeral procession on the day of funeral,
  • providing pall bearers,
  • organizing visitation, wake and commemoration services,
  • arranging repatriation.

Caskets, wreaths and other funeral items

The prevailing type of caskets in Russia is an upholstered wooden casket. The lid is decorated with frills and Orthodox symbols. At present there is a growing demand for polished wooden caskets and caskets with carvings. The two-lid (or split lid) caskets are considered to be luxury and are purchased for premium class funerals. The notorious 1990s in Russia set the trend for costly splendorous caskets to boast one’s financial status. At present the interest in posh designs is generally declining.

The soviet tradition was for the most part about military aspect. That fact influenced the traditional form of Russian funeral floral arrangements designed as artificial flower standing sprays with all types of conifers in them and contrasted colors. The floral elements of a typical Russian funeral are confined to two artificial floral sprays placed on the grave and an even number of red carnations or roses brought by family members, relatives and friends. During the last years funeral floral arrangements have become more varied especially in big cities. People have started to make funeral ceremony more personal taking into consideration the preferences of the deceased – the favorite colors, favorite flowers, family photos, etc.

Another necessary item provided by the funeral home is a wooden cross and a metal plate with the name of the deceased inscribed on it. These are to be placed on the grave right after the burial to mark the grave. Tombstones are typically installed next year after the burial. In Russia with its considerate temperature spans the soil needs to subside during the summer and winter season otherwise the tombstone can sink with it.

Cemetery wise another typically Russian feature is installing wrought iron fences all around the cemetery plot. This tradition has got a practical ground behind as due to flaws in the Russian funeral legislation not all cemeteries state the dimensions of cemetery plots and the fence turns out to be the only means of marking the borders.

Hearses and minibuses

The traditional hearses are not commonly used in Russia. Instead of this the decedent as well as the funeral procession are transported in a minibus with up to 18 seats for accompanying people and a specially equipped base for carrying the casket.

Cemeteries and crematoria

All cemeteries in Russia are state owned. According to the Russian funeral legislature each Russian citizen is to be buried. If a decedent has no relatives the governmental institutions take care of the burial. The cemetery plots are provided for indefinite lease with no fee. The only fee is charged for preparing the plot for the burial. The absence of annual fee contributes to a large proportion of abandoned plots that gradually pass into oblivion making the government indefinitely extend the cemeteries.

Russia has a constantly growing number of crematoria mainly located in big cities. There are three crematoria in Moscow including Nikolo-Arkhangelsky crematorium considered to be the largest in Europe. The urns are mainly placed in columbaria in cemeteries or buried at cemetery plots.

On the day of funeral

The day of the funeral starts at the mortuary. The relatives and friends gather in a separate hall of the mortuary for the visitation followed by the Orthodox funeral service. The funeral service can be performed by an Orthodox priest right in the mortuary hall, in a separate church, at the cemetery or in the crematorium. The Orthodox funeral service is a frequent part of a Russian funeral. Still not all Russians do not include it in the funeral ceremony.

After the visitation and the funeral service a minibus carries the casket and the funeral procession to the cemetery or crematorium. Usually the relatives stay right till the end of the burial and leave the cemetery after the grave mound is formed.

The final part of the funeral is a funeral reception. The commemoration meeting can take place either at home or in a café or a restaurant. There are a number of Russian traditional dishes for funeral receptions including sweet rice with raisins, pancakes, fruit starch drink and a variety of pies. If the funeral reception is arranged according to Orthodox traditions prayers are chanted and no alcohol is included in the menu.

Financial matters

An average Russian funeral costs considerably less as compared to Europe and the US – about $1000-$1500 including the cost of mortuary services, the cost of casket, floral decoration and minibus, the cost of burial or cremation, a funeral reception and a tombstone. Still this sum is not astonishingly low for citizens of Russia as the total may amount to a two month average salary in Moscow or a 4 month salary in more remote regions.

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