About Suffering They Were Never Wrong

A dispatch from a Russian funeral

By / February 2014

We could not do but peer through the glass surrounding our sixth-story balcony. A crowd of warmly bundled Russians, donning black ascots and bright stocking caps, had begun to gather outside the apartment building next door. On that windy November day in Ufa, the Ural Mountain capital of Bashkortostan, they looked, from our high perch, like bird seed scattered about the parking lot below. As the crowd grew larger, to a hundred and then 120 people, we wondered: Was this a wedding or a funeral?

Men placed bright flowers and molded wreaths on the concrete steps of the Soviet-era apartment building. Twenty minutes later, our speculation ended when four men in dark clothes carried what appeared to be a shallow plywood coffin from the apartment and placed it on two white stools in the center of the crowd. The box was open. Inside there was a body in a leaf-green sheet with a white crescent at center.

In the midst of the comings and goings of apartment-dwellers and building repairmen attempting to complete their work, a very solemn funeral began. As we studied the proceedings from the sixth floor, the attendees took turns offering eulogies. We could not hear them. The city was aswarm with car alarms, screaming children at the nearby playground, and strong winds, which kept toppling over the flowers.

At one point, a slightly paunchy, middle-aged man wearing a dark blue frocked coat pushed his way through the crowd. His car was parked at the edge of the mourners. Undeterred, he opened the trunk and began loudly loading long metal poles into his black hatchback. After a few moments the man slammed his trunk, shooed away the mourners from his door, then cranked his car to life and backed out of the parking lot, grazing several people with his bumper in the process.

At the apex of the reversal, his car stalled. The mourners were then treated to a cacophony of grinding and backfiring for several seconds as the man attempted to get his car running once again. At last, the driver was able to start his car and pull away from the funeral.

And all the while the mourners stayed standing in reverential silence, appearing not to notice the surrounding dissonance. It was as if they were no longer in a busy city, but rather in a serene, yet very cold, quiet meadow. Yet all around them life continued on as normal. Young women dutifully walked to the grocery. Kids raucously flew down the slide. Cars noisily sped through the streets. City workers swept and swept and swept the sidewalks.

Thirty minutes and the ceremony was over. Friends and family took turns approaching the casket and touching the deceased’s feet. Once the ritual was complete, two men gingerly picked up the platform and placed the coffin into a bright yellow Volkswagen van. Next they loaded the flowers and stools while the mourners dispersed. Many waddled onto a large white diesel bus, others boarded the yellow van, accompanying the departed to the final resting place

The whole presentation struck us as rather strange. Death, at least in the West, is a very private event, held behind the padded walls of funeral parlors or chapels. The partitioning has a way of making it seem as if Life stops when life stops. Yet here in Ufa, where Europe and Asia collide, people sorrow over their dead in the open air. And the spectacle does not appear to warrant much more than a glance from passersby.

In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the poet W. H. Auden wrote of the great painters:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

The old Masters. The people of Ufa, too.


Bobby and Azure Rahe are EthnoTraveler contributors.