Today (November 7) was the 97th anniversary of the Great October Revolution which birthed the USSR, and today I attended a Soviet funeral. That pretty much sums up 97 years of Soviet spirituality as I will explain.
The husband of Sonia’s friend passed away about a month or so ago, and the newly widowed Jenny finally got around to burying her husband’s ashes this afternoon. They were a nice couple, Jenny (Yevgenia) and Vladimir, both in their early 60’s, post-Soviet immigrants from Minsk who attended our wedding 13-years ago. Sonia met Jenny in a class and they’ve stayed in touch despite their moving to Miami a few years ago. So anyway, Jenny calls Sonia asking advice on what to do for a graveside service because it seems that back home when people passed away, they would simply put them in the ground and give them a red star. That doesn’t quite work anymore, so Sonia offered to help. Many ex-Soviets have since been baptised, but lacking any spiritual formation in their youth, people don’t quite know what to do in practice at a major life event such as a death in the family. People still get buried, but more than 70 years of state enforced atheism pretty much leaves the departed without much to look forward to. It’s often said that funerals are mainly for the living, but the Soviet alternative can be quite an empty and meaningless end to existence, really.
Coincidentally, our priest, Fr. Victor, was to visit my mother-in-law today and he offered to say some prayers at the graveside at the request of Jenny. To be very generous, Jenny and Vladimir, were basically Easter and Christmas churchgoers, so Sonia made the request for them. Last night, Sonia and her mother made a big bowl of Koliva which is a boiled wheat sweetened with honey that in Slavic tradition is served to people at the graveside in memory of the departed. So we leave with the Koliva, some candles, a couple of prayerbooks, and Fr.Victor to make the 20-minute drive to the cemetery.
We get there, and the first sign that something might be amiss is a big granite slab near the entrance with text in Hebrew. Once inside, I notice the man helping me to park is wearing a yarmulke, and so is the cemetery manager. Fr. Victor gets out in his cassock, and I’m not sure who was more surprised. It seems that the daughter bought plots in a Jewish cemetery based on Jenny being Jewish by birth, and the cemetery just assumed the whole family were Jews. A bit of a sticky situation developed which was complicated by Sonia mentioning that Jenny had also managed to get herself baptised. A standoff of sorts ensued. It seems there are house rules. The management is not happy with a mixed marriage. No officiating by a priest is allowed, no mention of Jesus Christ, no Christian prayers over the grave, no candles, etc..
Jenny finally gets there with her family. A conversation was had, and a compromise arranged. The 23rd Psalm that Jews and Christians share in common was read. Fr. Victor sung a beautiful prayer in Slavonic and delivered some nice words of comfort to the family in Russian. The cemetery manager read a simple closing prayer, then we cast soil into the grave, bid Vladimir farewell, and took our leave. Our stay was all too brief. We left with Jenny, her family, and a handful of Vlad’s friends and workmates, mainly ex-Soviet Jews who likely couldn’t distinguish a church from a synogogue.
It was all a bit confusing and jumbled, but hopefully God will sort it out.
What I took away from this is that 80 years of state sanctioned atheism never succeeded in replacing God with the state. People hunger for some spiritual meaning to life which only God can provide. Without God, Jenny’s husband is simply reduced to ash much like the Soviet state is today. Once having acknowledged God, there are an awful lot of people who will never quite make up for lost time.