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Loss and profit. Russian funeral industry breaks records amid war

Russian funeral business has seen unprecedented growth thanks to the government's efforts: at first help came in the form of the coronavirus policy (in 2021, in the absence of quarantine measures Russia had the highest daily covid mortality rate in the world), and since 2022 Russia's foreign policy has helped a lot, especially in recent days: for example, the number of graves in the Wagner PMC cemetery in the Krasnodar region has increased seven times in just two months. Funeral workers promptly respond to “zeitgeist”: land plots in cemeteries are being designated as military burial grounds, special camouflage caskets are being utilized, and new military burial rites are being introduced. It is true that crematoriums have suffered from sanctions but import substitution has kicked in and new facilities are being opened at an unprecedented pace.

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  • “There's no shortage of applicants for mortuary programs”

  • “The Z and V symbols are unpopular in grave design”

  • “Crematoriums are growing exponentially”

  • Funeral Sanctions

“There's no shortage of applicants for mortuary programs”

Scheduling an interview with Maxim Kolesov is difficult nowadays. “I can't do it today, unfortunately, work has piled up - three SMO fighters. It will take till night to repair the damage,” he writes. Maxim is an experienced mortician, that is, a master of cosmetic preparation of the deceased. After the start of the war, which he calls a “special operation,” Kolesov has been helping, on a voluntary basis, to send off its soldiers on their last journey:

“I make my funeral hall in New Moscow available free of charge for memorial services. We don't charge for the restoration of the bodies either. People find out about us through word of mouth, they call us. Our services include meeting cargoes 200 with relatives at the airport, delivering them to the morgue, opening the caskets, helping with identification and burial. The deceased are not only Moscow-born, some of the bodies are being dispatched to other regions.”

Back in the day, soldiers killed in military conflicts were often buried in closed caskets. But in recent years, cosmetic preparation of bodies has become commonplace in Russia. Funeral ceremonies for soldiers killed in the current war are being conducted “in the best possible manner.” State burial benefits are often not enough to pay for such ceremonies, but some families take loans, and some get free help from Maxim Kolesov.

Funeral ceremonies for participants of the current war are being conducted “in the best way possible”

Sometimes the face and hands of the deceased (no other parts of the body are visible during the farewell service anyway) are assembled literally from pieces. The crushed bones are repaired, and the wounds are filled with special wax. Work on a complex case can take up to 12 hours. And the longer the war goes on, the harder it gets, Kolesov says:

“At first it was mostly bullet wounds, often sniper wounds. Then there were large-caliber wounds. After that there were a lot of mortar and fragmentation wounds. And then came the aftermath of rocket attacks. HIMARS strikes mean a lot of small shrapnel, piercing everything in its path, like a colander or something.

Boris Yakushin, owner of the Novosibirsk crematorium and organizer of the annual funeral exhibition “Necropolis” says that in the first months of the war deceased soldiers returned in “surprisingly good” condition:

“Washed, embalmed, with minimal stubble. One could see that the body had been taken care of. There was a legend among the industry workers about a mortician who had gone to Rostov-on-Don and, as a volunteer, worked on dead soldiers. I don't know the details, but I would have been glad to meet such a person.”
The XXX Necropolis - World Russia International Funeral Services Forum and Exhibition, 2022
The XXX Necropolis - World Russia International Funeral Services Forum and Exhibition, 2022
Dmitry Lebedev. Kommersant

The number of casualties grew in summer, and the bodies began to arrive in poor condition. Now the condition has improved again. Perhaps the cold weather, in which corpses are better preserved, had an impact.

The number of casualties grew in summer, and the bodies began to arrive in poor condition

In any case, the demand for mortuary services in Russia is now growing. So is interest in the specialty. Dmitry Yevsikov, another authoritative specialist in the field of preparation of the deceased, says:

“Over the year 2022 I conducted several training courses for beginners. In the past, only 3 or 4 persons wanted to attend, but now there are 18-25 people. Most of them are morgue employees. In contrast, some of them are former makeup artists, beauticians, hairdressers. However, I would not assert that this is due to the hostilities.”

Maxim Kolesov is scheduling a big master class in Minsk for February. He promises to talk about complex cases of facial reconstruction and show slides.

“The Z and V symbols are unpopular in grave design”

In May, the Novosibirsk crematorium plans to open a special military section of its columbarium with 500 niches. The idea came long before the current war, back in 2019. And now, in the opinion of the crematorium owner Boris Yakushin, it's time to bring it to life:

“Everything there will be in military style, even a cannon will be installed. We're not going to use the Z and V symbols in the design just yet, but we'll be offering them as one of the templates for the marble plaques. By the fall, we'll know how much demand there is for it.”

In general, according to the funeral director, the Latin symbols of the current war are not very popular yet:

“I have seen wreaths with the letters Z and V in cemeteries, but not often. St. George's ribbons are more common. Over the past year, manufacturers came up with caskets in the colors of pixelated Russian camouflage and quite a lot of military paraphernalia. But this apparently evokes bad associations with relatives. There is not much demand for such products.”
“We're not going to use the Z and V symbols in the design just yet, but we'll be offering them as a template”

In summer there was a discussion on the Internet about an advertisement for such a camouflage casket. A model called “Defender” was on sale in Russian-occupied Berdyansk.

Patriotic casket sales advert
Patriotic casket sales advert

But according to Yakushin's observations, sarcophagus caskets have been in vogue in some regions this year. The lid of such a casket consists of two halves, one of which can be opened at the farewell. It used to be a common feature of American army funerals. Now, Yakushin says, it has come to Russia:

“The protocol for a soldier's burial has changed slightly this year. For example, previously the flag was placed on the casket in a triangle, like the Americans do. And now they put it in a square. This flag is a tribute to the deceased. It is then given to relatives or left on the grave. Sometimes it is the Russian flag, sometimes - the flag of PMC Wagner. Not the one with a skull, but with a cross, swords, and a star. What's interesting about the Wagner PMC is that their command has set a goal to bury the dead with maximum honors. They have sent their representatives to the regions to deal with the local authorities and the military, so that the cemeteries should have a lot of land and a final salute team. Even the Ministry of Defense doesn't go to such lengths for their dead. I was at one of Wagner burials. The soldier was an ex-con, and the relatives refused to attend. So, other than myself, there were only a representative of the Wagner PMC and military servicemen.”
Wagner PMC Chapel
Wagner PMC Chapel

A bus usually comes from the Ministry of Defense. It carries four men of the final salute team. Often, they are also the guard of honor. If an officer is being buried, a representative of the local administration may come. The final salute is performed before the casket is lowered into the grave. And if it is a cremation, the salute is performed when everyone comes outside after the farewell.

In the summer of 2022, special military sections appeared in cemeteries in many regions of Russia. According to Yakushin, such initiatives often come from the Wagner PMC. In general, Evgeny Prigozhin is not a stranger to the subject of cemeteries. Since at least 2018, his military units have their own cemetery for mercenaries in Goryachy Klyuch, Krasnodar Krai. There is a chapel, two monuments to mercenaries and rows of columbaria with the coat of arms of Wagner PMC on each niche.

By December, there was no space left for burial near the chapel, and dead Wagner mercenaries were buried in Bakinskaya village, 18 kilometers from Goryachi Klyuch. Two fresh graves were discovered by local activists, and on December 21 the information was confirmed by Prigozhin's press service.

When a reporter from 93.RU visited the new cemetery three days later, she found 48 graves as more bodies kept coming in. Only one of those buried was a native of Krasnodar Krai, and most of them had criminal record based on court databases. “All the bodies are brought to Bakinskaya from Rostov-on-Don, but why exactly from there, no one knows, to be honest. The cemetery staff assume that “they just have bigger refrigerators there.” And it's close to the border,” the article says.

Cemetery in Bakinskaya
Cemetery in Bakinskaya
Photo by

Thanks to Boris Yakushin, we know the reason:

“Rostov-on-Don is a transshipment base for the deceased, bodies from the SMO zone are sent there. The military is responsible for sending them on home. But the workload is quite heavy. Therefore, I think that the new four-chamber crematorium, which is now being built in Rostov, will not remain idle for the next 2-3 years.

“Crematoriums are growing exponentially”

Dmitry Yevsikov is not only a mortician, but also a specialist in equipping crematoriums. He now lives in Crimea and manages projects around the country from there: he orders furnaces, organizes their delivery and installation. This specialty, according to him, is very much in demand:

“Crematoriums in Russia are literally growing exponentially: five opened in the previous year alone. Several more are in the works right now. We are just finishing the second crematorium in Rostov-on-Don. Another one is being built in Anapa. There are a few more projects which I can't talk about yet. The industry boomed during the pandemic as the demand for cremation increased. In addition, land in cemeteries is physically running out. Investors are often people who have made money somewhere else, and we are experienced contractors who help organize everything. A crematorium can be built in 8-10 months. So, some construction projects were launched after the beginning of hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. It's a good investment, a crematorium breaks even in 3-5 years.”

Boris Yakushin does not agree with these calculations and suggests that the breakeven period should be 10 years:

“We've been seeing the highest demand since the fall of 2020 when the pandemic struck. Instead of 500 cremations a month, for example, we started doing a thousand. Now, despite wartime, the situation is closer to pre-pandemic. Still, most of those who die at the front are buried in the ground. And the businesses that produce crosses, wreaths, and caskets are the ones that are growing.

Yet, crematoriums in Russia are indeed being opened at a quick pace. There are only 33 such facilities for the entire country, but the need is much higher.

As for mobile crematoriums, the use of which in the occupied territories at the beginning of the war was reported by Ukrainian sources, they do exist. In 2015, for example, a scandal broke out over a mobile crematorium in Kaliningrad. A local businessman made it, and then the court banned its use, but it took a long time to catch the banned crematorium on wheels. According to Dmitry Yevsikov, several such truck-based devices have been manufactured in Russia:

“They were supposed to be used in the Far North and other hard-to-reach places. But it turned out that such contraptions were completely outside the legal field. So, they were mostly used not for dead people, but for the disposal of dead animals. And I don't believe that mobile crematoria could have been used anywhere on the frontline. In the army, the procedure is completely different: bodies are sent to a morgue or corpse storage facility. From there, after identification, they are sent to the relatives as cargoes 200. And then the funeral takes place there.”
mobile crematorium manufactured by Tourmaline
mobile crematorium manufactured by Tourmaline

Funeral Sanctions

The crematorium in Voronezh opened in 2020, and on December 8, 2022, it was announced that it was shutting down due to the sanctions from the Czech company Tabo CS, which produced the equipment. Boris Yakushin confirms that there is indeed a problem with the components:

“After the outbreak of hostilities, the Czechs wrote letters to all Russian crematoriums saying they would no longer cooperate. And given that all this is state-of-the-art equipment that is connected to the Internet for online diagnostics, some of the furnaces were even shut down remotely. Crematorium owners complained about this. But now the rhetoric has changed. Czech partners are saying they want to work, but they are under pressure. The Voronezh crematorium, as far as I know, is doing better. The crematorium in Ulan-Ude has even received some spare parts from the Czechs through third countries.

However, new complexes are built with a focus on other manufacturers. Dmitry Yevsikov switched to China. In 2022 he imported 12 furnaces for new and existing crematoriums from there. Boris Yakushin does not approve of this approach:

“Yes, Chinese furnaces are four times cheaper. Let's say, 7 to 10 million rubles apiece excluding delivery, instead of 40 million from European manufacturers. But everything in them is deliberately messed up so that only the Chinese can service these furnaces themselves. More importantly, there are problems with documentation. The furnaces are not officially registered as cremation equipment. That's why there are problems with connecting them to gas mains and with Rospotrebnadzor when it comes to obtaining a license.

However, domestic production is being set up. A company in Nizhny Tagil has developed its own cremation chamber design. But, according to Yakushin, they have not yet sold any of their products. But there is another possibility:

“From the very beginning, they made the cremation chambers for the crematorium in Murmansk themselves. They used to specialize in heating equipment and at a certain point they thought: why not build ourselves a crematorium. They made a mix of American and Czech designs. Now they are ready to supply their equipment to other Russian colleagues.”

The sanctions also dealt a blow to morticians. According to Dmitry Yevsikov, most of the materials used to prepare the dead for burial came from England and the United States:

“The Americans have refused to supply them to us. And they are much harder to substitute, the Chinese can't get us anything like that.”

Maxim Kolesov says that he had to switch to improvised stuff and “regular cosmetics” (for the living). And also to products made by Boris Yakushin, who set up import-substituting production in Novosibirsk. The factory he owns began producing liquid-retention products, as well as powder, eye-caps (they are inserted under the eyelids on top of, or instead of, eyeballs). According to the businessman, about 1,000 sets are sold per month.

I had to switch to improvised stuff and “regular cosmetics” for the living

But it was the production of headstones that was hit hardest by the war, Yakushin said:

“China used to be a major supplier, but those supplies were severely affected by the pandemic and the closure of the borders. They have not recovered until now. So, most of the cheap stone came from Ukrainian producers. You can still get it through people you know. In industry-related online chat rooms people often ask if anyone has any Ukrainian stone. But last year stone production in Karelia suddenly grew very popular. And at our autumn Necropolis exhibition there were a lot more headstones on display than we expected.”

However, this part of the funeral industry has only just been tested by the war. After all, a headstone is placed on a grave only a year later. So, a rise in demand for granite for military burials should be expected in Russia by 2023.

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