05 May 2008

Spring Cleaning

I really like Russian cemeteries. I go for walks in one of the local ones sometimes, because it's quiet and green. (Is that weird?) Lately my walks have been less solitary than usual, because of an interesting Russian spring custom: after Easter, one should go to the graves of one's departed family members and have a "rememberance" (my somewhat awkward translation of поминки/pominki).

Like the Easter food I mentioned before, this formerly-religious tradition is a bit muddled. I've heard that it should take place nine days after Easter, that it should take place seven days after Easter; that it can take place any time from the Saturday to the Tuesday after Easter, and that the nine-day tradition is specific to Taganrog (it's not – it was the same in Vladivostok); I've also heard several different explanations for why it happens when it does. At any rate, it happens sometime around now, and both practicing and non-practicing Orthodox seem to participate.

Pominki, as I've been given to understand them, consist of drinking and eating to the memory of the deceased and leaving a little food and drink behind for them to enjoy. Besides happening every year after Easter, pominki happen right after the funeral (at home, not graveside like the Easter pominki); on the third, ninth and fortieth days after a death; six months after a death; and yearly on the anniversary of a death.

The yearly anniversary pominki don't have to be fancy; I recently had my first exposure to Orthodox funeral tradition when one of my colleagues brought in some little cakes and laid them out in our department office for the first anniversary of her mother's death. Whenever someone asked why they were there, she (or whoever was around) would explain; the person who had asked would then take a cake and say, "Царство небесное Татьяне"/"Tsarstvo nebesnoye Tat'yane," or "The heavenly kingdom for Tatyana," Tatyana being her mother's name. (I might have gotten the grammar on that slightly wrong, since it didn't seem polite to enquire about it, but the general idea is right.)

Anyway, the Easter pominki are a little more elaborate than that, but nowadays the most important thing about them seems to be that they're a chance to take care of your loved ones' graves. Significant grave maintenance is made necessary by several aspects of Russian cemeteries; first, Soviet-era gravestones tend to be made of painted metal, which requires frequent retouching; second, many plots are actually tiny fenced-in gardens – and even if they're not fenced in, lots of grave markers consist of both a headstone and a long, narrow flowerbox planted with real perennials, which obviously need to be tended; third, I've never really thought about who does the mowing and weeding and raking and the like in U.S. cemeteries, but whoever it is, they don't seem to have a comparable service in Russia, so it's up to you to do all that for your relatives' plots.

People try to do all that before the actual pominki, though, so for the past few weeks the cemetery has been full of people wielding rakes and spades and buckets of paint. A couple of babushki selling garish silk flowers and wreaths have even appeared outside the gates.

Some pictures of Taganrog's Old Cemetery:

The standard Soviet citizen's grave. Many are painted blue (because it's the color of heaven), but this one just got a fresh coat of green. The trend nowadays, though, is much more toward the granite (marble?) gravestones that are common in the United States.

Veterans got a star – the symbol of Soviet military power.

There are lots of rather makeshift-looking crosses, I assume because if you wanted to place a cross during the Soviet era, you had to make one yourself.

The typical fenced-in plot, which is often complete with a little bench and table for pominki.

A typical flowerbed-gravestone, which clearly shows three things: the common heaven-blue paint; how people do the paint job themselves; and how crosses were added onto the standard-issue Soviet gravemarkers. (It says "Tikhonov Vladimir M--- (I can't make out that word). 13.10.1910-15/XI 70. We love and remember you, your children.")

The church in the old cemetery.

All in all, I think yearly pominki are a nice tradition, although I can see where it could be a big burden when you're the only relative left in town and you've got eight or nine graves to take care of in different cemeteries.


Cory said...

Where I live in Brooklyn, one of the most peaceful places is Greenwood Cemetery in the South Park Slope/Sunset Park/Windsor terrace area. In fact, sometimes I even like it better than the park because it's so quiet. I relate.

Nana said...

Now I had to go do research on US cemeteries. It appears that basic maintenance is provided by the cemetery administrator (see http://winnersd.com/Cemetery/cemetery_maintenance.htm for an example).

And how about this?

I personally like the rule "No toys, lawn ornaments or frivolous decorations are permitted." Why, it might block the neighbor's view?

Seriously, if you can't have a plastic flamingo on your grave, what's the point of being dead?

Anonymous said...

lol :)