Aleksei Orlov’s grandfather was buried in Moscow’s Danilovskoe Cemetery in 1946. His grandmother was laid to rest there four decades later. And, about 11 years ago, Orlov buried his father there.
But when his mother died unexpectedly last August, he found there was no room for her in the family plot. Or almost anywhere else.
Moscow, it turns out, is largely closed to the dead. Of the 71 cemeteries in the Russian capital, only one is open to new burials. The shortage of space has left relatives without room in family plots to choose between burial far from the city and cremation, a practice that is frowned upon by the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Mama was a Christian and wanted to be buried according to Christian tradition,” Orlov, a Moscow business analyst, said. “On the other hand, it wasn’t possible to bury her. New plots are either far away, expensive or both.”
Much of a Muscovite’s life is spent jockeying for space. Officially, some 10.5 million people live in the capital, though unofficial estimates, which include the city’s undocumented immigrants, put the figure at millions more.
On the roads, drivers become knotted in enormous traffic jams, while masses of people twist and tumble through the subway at rush hour. Housing is so sparse that feuds over property deeds are common — and sometimes end in bloodshed.
But, for the families of the 120,000 people who die annually in Moscow, the search for an afterlife dwelling is a singular challenge.
The 18th-century Danilovskoe Cemetery in southern Moscow, where Orlov’s family plot is located, is a tightly packed jumble of headstones and monuments. The graves’ occupants stare out ghostlike from portraits engraved on headstones, a Russian custom. Small plots can be crammed with relatives — mothers, fathers, children, their spouses. In one overcrowded patch, there are seven family members.
Even in the prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery, the likes of Khrushchev, Chekhov and Shostakovich seem to jostle with generals, actors and the relatives of czars for a slice of eternal ground to rest on.
The city government here has said there is no more room for cemeteries in Moscow, and many citizens believe it is unwilling to free up valuable land that could be used for other purposes.
Russian attitudes toward burial also complicate the search for cemetery space. Unlike many Americans, who tend to approach cemetery real estate as they would, say, a new condo, many Russians still believe funeral arrangements to be the government’s responsibility, as it was in Soviet-era times.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the government deregulated and privatized much of the funeral business in Russia. This has led to an explosion of private funeral agencies. Funerary agents largely operate free of oversight, and can easily take advantage of grieving families desperately seeking a burial plot.
“The number of agents, licensed and not, exceeds the number of people who die daily in Moscow,” said Aleksandr V. Yegorov, the general director of Ritual, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees Moscow’s cemeteries and competes with private funeral agencies by offering some services. “This leads above all to corruption, to commercial sale of information, which we are fighting against.”
The agents, Yegorov said, are often in collusion with the police and hospital staff members, who tip them off when someone dies — for a fee, of course.
They have been known to show up at the deceased’s residence before the ambulance, Avdeyev said, pressing and cajoling grieving relatives.
Stories also abound in the news media and on the Web of renegade undertakers defrauding the retired out of life savings. There have also been reports of people bribing cemetery officials to secure space for family members in someone else’s family plot.
In response, Ritual has created its own security force, which has had some success in reining in the lawlessness. In the last two years, 350 people have been arrested for violations of Moscow funeral laws, the agency said. More than 30 employees of Ritual have been fired for corruption.
But a solution to the issue of cemetery space remains elusive.
The Moscow government has started a program to hand over the rights of unkempt or abandoned family plots to Muscovites, who agree to look after them and can move in when the time comes. The daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda recently compared the initiative to an afterlife version of communal apartments, the much-hated solution to Moscow’s housing crisis in the Soviet era.
The government has also purchased land in the surrounding region, but many Muscovites take issue with having to drive two to three hours to visit a loved one.
As for Orlov, he ultimately decided to ignore the wishes of the Orthodox Church and several angry relatives. He cremated his mother — an increasingly common practice — and settled her in the family plot next to his father.
“Cremation has become less of a problem at this point,” he said, “because it requires less space.”