Russian Funerals: Black Bread and Vodka

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Funeral for Mikhail Kalashnikov
Funeral for Mikhail Kalashnikov

Irina Jordan is the owner of Artisurn—online marketplace of handcrafted cremation urns, jewelry and keepsakes. Connector. Optimist. Avid reader.

If you caught some of the funeral coverage of the famous Russian weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, you may have wondered how funerals in Russia might be different from those in your country. There are quite a few similarities but also some unique differences thanks to Russia’s rich historical heritage and culture interlaced with superstitions.

During the time of the Soviet Union (1917-1991), state funerals of the most senior political and military leaders were staged as massive events with millions of mourners all over the USSR. The ceremonies held after the deaths of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and other General Secretaries followed the same process. They took place in Moscow where they began with a public viewing of the deceased in the House of the Unions and ended with an interment at the Red Square.

I vividly remember as a child taking turns at school to stand by a black draped portrait of a deceased political leader to pay him respects with somber music playing throughout my school. I still have an aversion to red carnations that accompany political funerals in Russia.

The re-emergence of religion after the collapse of the USSR made a big impact on Russian funeral traditions. Nowadays, Orthodox church bells ring high to low note series for funerals. Funerals are generally held on the third day after someone dies. On that day, family and friends gather for a special memorial dinner. On the ninth day, when the soul is believed to leave the body, a special church service and dinner are held. On the 40th day, the soul is said to depart for the other world, and a service and dinner party are held again.

At each party, a glass of vodka covered by a piece of black bread is left for the deceased, a reversal of the traditional Russian custom of breaking black bread when meeting someone for the first time.

Mourners are expected to wear dark, formal clothing. Wearing black clothing is a ritual established to prevent the dead from returning. Mourners bring or send only an even number of flowers.

If mourners visit the grieving family before the service, tradition requires them to say, “may their memory be eternal,” or “their memory will be forever with us, in our hearts and prayers.” In addition, making contributions to a church or offering help to the family members is appropriate. During the actual services, mourners usually stand to honor deceased and pay respects to the family. Visitations take place at a funeral home or special hospital facility. Funerals are typically open casket and all participating men do not cover their heads.

Both members and non-members of the Russian Orthodox faith are expected to bow in front of the casket and kiss a special ribbon resting on the deceased forehead. Later, at the internment, each mourner places a flower on the casket and, after it’s lowered, drops a few palms of dirt on top. Afterward, family and friends head to a restaurant, church hall, or private home for what is customarily called a memorial dinner or mercy meal.

Rituals are incorporated in the mourning process and include covering mirrors, stopping watches, and removing a TV from the room where the body lies in wait. Superstitious the dead will return to their home and take someone with them, when the body is carried away from the home for burial, the deceased is carried with legs extended forward and done so no part of the body touches the house on the way out. When the body is removed, people sit in the chairs or on tables that held the coffin before turning them over for a length of time.

Russian funeral traditions are still evolving, especially with a rising popularity of cremation, but many of the fundamentals remain to this day.

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