Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Cemetery

Zhovti Vody was the location where in 1648, 360 years ago this year, Bohdan Khmelnitsky defeated the Poles and freed Ukraine from their very unpleasant overlordship. Of course, six years later, his allies having deserted him and the Poles threatening a return engagement, Khmelnitsky signed an agreement effectively turning Ukraine over to the Russians. The jury is still out on that one.

Zhovti Vody is today a city of about 70 to 80,000 people, founded as an urban centre in the late 1950’s. During Soviet times it was a “closed city” and only authorized people were allowed to go there. It had two military factories turning out communications equipment, as well as a uranium mine and processing mill. When Ukraine became independent, the factories shut down but the mine still operates.

Marianivka, where Tanya and I live is a village that starts on the south east edge of ZV (I can’t figure out where the city stops and the village begins) and stretches south for several kilometers along both sides of a creek and boggy marsh. Behind our house, about two blocks to the West, is a very large cemetery serving the city and containing many hundreds of graves, more than a thousand, I would say. The bulk of the graves are from the past three decades, with much fewer from the 1970’s and very few from the 1960’s and 1950's. This is in keeping with the “creation” of the city of Zhovti Vody 50 years ago.

Bobik, Volk and I go for our twice daily walks around and through the cemetery. The puppies love to explore and I love to read the headstones for stories they might tell.

The stories are all too often of lives cut short. The average age seems to be about 60 years. For every person who lived into their 80’s there are many who died in their 50’s and too many young people in their 20’s and 30’s. I found one lady who made the grand age of 107 years but another husband and wife who died two years apart, both 51. There seem to be more graves of old women than old men, possibly a result of “The Great Patriotic War” which claimed the lives of Ukrainian men in unprecedented numbers. One wonders how much being born before 1946 and enduring the horrors of war we cannot imagine impacted the age at which people died

While most graves do not have any religious insignia, traditional Orthodox customs are plainly evident. Cremation is banned except when ordered by civil authorities for public health reasons. The body is buried facing East with the marker placed at the foot of the grave so that as you read the inscriptions, you are also facing East, the rising sun, the symbol of the resurrection. Including a picture of the deceased on the gravestone is a common custom. Technology from about the past 15 years allows the person’s portrait to be laser etched onto granite slabs, where previously it was on a ceramic plaque fastened to the marker. Graves are almost always fenced, either as individual sites or as family plots and tables and benches are also quite common to allow people to sit and eat and drink as they remember those who have gone on.

Almost every grave site is well cared for by family or friends. April is the month when people tend the graves, cleaning up debris, planting flowers, and placing artificial wreaths, in preparation for Paskha or Easter. Every day the puppies and I on our walks encounter different people tending graves of loved ones. Families looking after graves of parents and grandparents. Grandparents tending the graves of children or grandchildren. A lonely man in his mid-40’s planting flowers around the grave of his wife who died 11 years ago at the age of 29.

Life is life, the Russians say, and death is part of life.


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