Death is Painful in Any Culture, Anywhere.

1999 > Russia

Death is painful in any culture, anywhere.

Yesterday, in the middle of an overwhelmingly busy day, I received an
email that stopped me in my tracks. My friend’s mother had died.

Actually, I’m not sure how Laura ranks
in my life, or I in hers. After I spent a week living with her family in
1996, we wrote every so often, until I came here last year. Last summer,
I went to her dacha and hung out with her family.
In doing so, I think she counted me as a friend, Russian style. I thought
of her as I would think of my American friends, and that is where the trouble

She wrote me two very personal, very disturbing letters. One, while I was
still back in the states, was about a personal trauma, that I didn’t know
how to respond to. I was not used to, nor did I expect her to share such
intense moments of her life with me. My reaction, or lack of action, confused
her. Like Vadim hints to in America, there is a
much different level of friendship here.

laura & her mom

Laura & her Mom

Then, earlier this year, she wrote me about her mom’s illness. I didn’t
know how to respond to that letter either. I asked my friend, Matt, who is
a bit more knowledgeable in these matters than I, but I was a bit uneasy
about his suggested course of action. In the end, I did nothing.

Now I have her email, her email about how much she loves, respects, and misses
her mother. I should be honored by the intimacy of her friendship, but instead
I feel a bit frustrated.

I come from the land of understatement, where all things bad are shuttled
aside, hidden, or just not spoken about. I don’t know how to react to displays
of intimacy from “friends.” I don’t think I would even be good at displays
of intimacy from my family outside of my parents. We just don’t do that as
Puritan Americans! I guess this is a good time to apologize to Laura, for
I have failed her in a way, and at the same time I am angry at my culture
for being so damn cold!

It’s also time to find the subject of this page again; Death.

Her mom’s death prompted me to ask Tanya, a Russian woman I work with whose
family has kept the Russian traditions alive, about the Russian traditions
surrounding death.

Death is not a bad thing in Russia, it can be spoken about, and Russians
speak about death, the deceased, and the cause of death a lot more than we
do. They have four ceremonies for the deceased, the day of the death, and
three, nine, and forty days after.

The day of the death, they wash the body, align it feet first to the door
and cover all the mirrors and chandeliers in the house. They do all this
so the soul will be able to leave the body and not see itself as dead. On
the third day, after the soul has left the body, the body is taken to the
cemetery along a route, via the church, lined with evergreen branches.

The cemetery is an odd place for an American to go. I lived by a cemetery
in Florida for a while, and they are so impersonal compared to a Russian
one. Here, each grave marker is a standing cross or gravestone, no flat markers
on the ground, and they have etchings of the deceased, or poems by the survivors.
Around the grave is usually a bench and table, where the family can come
and remember the dead. At a cemetery outside of St Pete, I saw plots still
used, who were for people a generation gone. That is remembrance.

On day three, nine, and forty, a party is held, that while festive and positive,
is not a vodka toasting, glass clinking event. Special foods must be eaten,
of which kasha, belini, and kuta (rice with honey), are the most common,
and all are encouraged to remember the person in his good moments.

I am sure Laura will have a scaled down version of these ceremonies. Her
family buried her mother in Lithuania, her home country, and they might return
there for the follow-up ceremonies. I’m still clueless as to what to do,
or if she will appreciate that her email was such an experience, that I felt
I had to share it.

3 February 1999, Johnson’s Russia List

Memorial reflections

By Robert M. Teets, Jr.

As an expat lawyer living and trying to make a go of it working on environmental
reforms in the CIS, I have benefited from the excellent contents of
your [David Johnson’s] list for approximately six months now.
Your recent loss of your Mom touched me although of course death is something
profoundly personal and permanent and, in my experience, words of condolence
are inevitably awkward and flat.

Yet anniversaries of deaths are something which our culture marks and it
is such a context that I found myself musing upon the deaths of Pushkin and
Brodsky. From the investment which you have chosen to make to matters Russian
and from what your mother’s obituary noted of her commitment to social reform
and activismùthese are ideals which you both share and shared with
Brodsky and Pushkin.

With my best regards.

Wednesday, 13 Jan 1999-Old (Julian Calendar) New Year’s Eve

For a significant portion of his years after receiving the 1987 Nobel Prize
for Literature, Joseph Alexandrevich Brodsky, who died in New York City not
quite three years ago just this month,, devoted himself to the cause of
proselytizing Americans to increase their reading and appreciation of poetry.
An obvious impetus for his crusade was, of course, his metier as an author
whose poetry and prose ranks high in the pantheon of this century’s contribution
toward justifying, if not redeeming, humankind’s conflicted record as a so-called
“intelligent” life form in this solar system.

As an American, now in my middle years, I have long admired the rigor which
humanity’s poetic tradition and corpus represents: first of all as a reader
and only infrequently, in a cherished “fit” of inspiration,a glimmer of the
music which words can magically evoke,as a writer. Since my memory feels,
too often, as if it carries more advertising jingles of America’s commercial
television than the “golden prose” much less poetic treasures of our English
language,I readily applauded Brodsky’s undertaking and wished his notion
of an anthology of poems to join the Gideon Bible in its ubiquity,every success.

Now as a denizen of Russia in its capitol, I live not far from the museum
which will be a physical focal point of some poetic significance during this
calendar year. Devoted to the works and life of “the” literary giant of this
nation and people,the Pushkin Museum on Prechistenka has been undergoing
a major expansion as well as remodeling of its rich collection of manuscripts,
art works, and other physical trappings which were part of early 19th century
Imperial Russia, i.e. the world of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837).
This year is the bicentennial of his birth. It is a fact and an event of
which every Russian is fully conscious.

As opposed to the snippets of “sing-song” and trite commercials which were
engraved upon my childish brain, today I do regard with satisfaction the
fragments of Mother Goose, A.E. Milne, and Dr. Seuss which I can sometimes
call-up and declaim. But to my envy, my Russian friends and acquaintances
have a far more precious inheritance which they have at a far more ready
and full command.

This Russian reality manifests itself in everyday life when tribulations
as well as joys come upon us. Consider a couple of his stanzas (1825), as
a quick example, albeit in my own poor translation:

When life brings you disappointment, Neither be sad nor angry; On dejectful
days, resign yourself ,Believe that days of joy will have their season.

The heart lives for what will be: The sad present, Is only an instant and
it will pass ,Believe that which shall come will be dear.

These thoughts in Russian have a strict geometry and pure music which elevates
their intrinsic consoling wisdom to such a height that Pushkin reigns close
to the surface of “New” as well as “Old” Russians; the kids together with
their elders; the political right along with the left. He ties together a
Russian identity which like the economy has become tattered and fractious.
The disparate and dis-spirited Russian soul of today, upon the intonation
of his familiar words, miraculously congeals and crystallizes into something
eternal and beautiful.

As the countdown proceeds to his 200th birthday,on 06 June 1999,one of the
two Russian public television channels, the first channel,ORT, is proving
the foregoing factual characterization with its broadcast of a daily reminder
of the number of days left. This simple notice is stunningly accompanied
by a rapid-segued series of Russians,on the street; at home; in the office,each
spontaneously picking-up from the previous speaker and reciting the following
line from a variety of Pushkin’s astonishing poetic corpus until the recitation
is complete.

To my great embarrassment and frustration, I cannot find anything comparable
to say about the American soul. Oh, perhaps we could manage the first part
of “Casey at the Bat” or “The Night before Christmas” and those are somethings
quite neat. But might they be proclaimed as virtuoso performance or an epitome
of the American spirit?,I hope not.

Contemporary Russians may or may not understand money the way their Western
European and American counterparts do, but they do understand somethings
exceedingly dear which it would very much behoove us to learn from as well
as emulate. Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin is a superlative one but not the
only one of those things Russian and priceless.