March 2, 2009 Two Funerals and a Fool

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |

There were two funerals today. I attended one of them, made a fool out of myself, and had a nice meal.

Today, the Lada died. That may not mean much to you people in America, but the Lada is the second most popular car in history. The 18.5 million made ranks the Lada just under the Volkswagen bugs’ 19.5 million and above the Model T with its 16.5 million made. Almost 70% were exported to Europe, Asia, and Australia, where the low price and rugged simplicity made them popular.

If you have ever seen a picture of a Russian street or a Russian driving a car, you have seen a Lada. It is a tiny little box that looks like a 1966 Fiat. In fact, it actually was a 1966 Fiat.

The Italians sold the entire plant to Russia. Russia began making 1966 fiats in 1970 – and was still making them last week. They used heavier steel for the body so it would hold up better in Siberia, made the suspension stronger to hold up to the rotten Russia roads, and sold it for as little as $2500. It was roomy for a micro car, had a big trunk, for a micro car, and was easy to repair. The rumor was that the easy repair was necessary because the owners did a lot of repair. I have heard about the lousy quality of the Ladas every time I go to Russia, but I have seen a lot of them that have run 300,000 to 400,000 miles. They just keep repairing them.

You see a lot of Ladas with house carpeting on the front floor, wood grained linoleum over the shift box, hand carved wooded door handles, and dash board knobs made from old radio knobs. The owners didn’t usually have a lot of money, but they found ways to keep them going. Since gas prices went up several years ago, a lot of Ladas have been converted to run on natural gas. In addition to the gasoline tank, they have a “gas” tank in the trunk for LPG.

They have changed over the years. As the old dies wore out, the lines were sharpened up, gauges were improved, the dash was changed, the headlights went from round to modern square lights, chrome cleaned up, and so on. The price also went up from $2500 to eventually almost $6000. After a recent round of discounts and a run up in the American dollar, they were selling for less than $5000 new when they were discontinued. They were still fairly popular, but the Russian government decreed that all new car production had to meet EU standards, and there was just no way to update a 1966 design to meet twenty first century emission and collision standards.

I will miss the cramped little cars, starting about 25 years from now when the last ones finally wear out.

The second funeral was more personal. A family friend, the father in law of my wife’s cousin died. It was very different than death in America. It also proved one of the biggest differences between Rural Russia and the United States.

He died on Friday, and the funeral was on Saturday. In rural Russia, there are no funeral homes and no embalmers. If you die on Friday, Saturday is a good time for the burial.

When my grandmother died in small town America, her body was embalmed the same day. A professional mortician made her look “peaceful” before her body sat in the mortuary for three days while friends and family came to pay their last respects.

When Sergie died, his wife and sisters prepared the body for burial themselves. They washed and dressed him and placed him in a casket under the car port. The next morning the more religious relatives had a two hour religious ceremony in the same driveway – which most of us skipped. About noon, the rest of us began to show up. People stood around the front yard and gossiped just as they do in America. They talked about Sergei tried to console the wailing widow, talked about work and school, and each other.

People don’t really dress up for funerals here. Most were mostly in their casual clothes. The closer family and friends were dressed in black when possible. The major exception was my 14 year old niece who, apparently, had been told that this was a costume party rather than a funeral and who came dressed as a hooker. But then, most Russian girls her age dress that way.

When we took my grandmother to the cemetery, we loaded her $5500 mahogany coffin with the brass hinges and grips into the Cadillac hearse and then we all drove our cars behind the hearse, out to the cemetery.

In Premalka, six of his friends carried the pine box out to a flat bed truck and we walked to the cemetery. The coffin was a simple pine box, silk lined and covered with blue bunting. There were no hinges, no handles, and no top until we got to the grave site. We walked in a solemn procession behind the truck, and it was a real procession. The truck came first, followed by the wife and sister, then followed by people holding up a cross and religious icons. Then, ten wide, the rest of us walked slowly behind them.

The trip to the old cemetery was about two miles and there we had to part with tradition. The grave was actually at a new cemetery that was another mile away over muddy paths, so the family had rented busses to take us the rest of the way.

The coffin was lowered by the family and the grave filled in by mourners before we left.

After the funeral, everyone went to a restaurant that served a “funeral special meal.” We had the entire restaurant and they served what my family says is the standard funeral meal. We started with a tray of cheese, bread, and salami. The main course was borche, of course, with more chunks of bread, and a little tort (Russian cake) for desert.

Of course, we all carefully made certain that we gave a gift that more than covered the price of our meals and bus rides. The family does not need more expenses at a time like this.

All in all, the process and the expense made a lot more sense than our customs. We spend far too much money on the dead that could better be used for the living, and our funerals have no more significance than this one.

On the sad side, the widow was inconsolable. She cried and wailed in a manner that only happens in bad movies. In a Russian marriage that lasts, and they do not all last, the bond is a tight one. Sergei was a little older than me. He and his wife were children when the Germans came during WWII, youth when the post war hunger hit, adults during socialism, and approaching senior age when the economy collapsed in 1992. In Indiana, we would call it a hard scrabble life. It took both of them to keep food on the table.

In addition to her emotional loss, she now she faces a future without insurance payouts, or social security widow’s benefits, or Aid to Seniors. Her home is paid for, but her savings will eventually run out and her pension may not cover food and heat, so her children will end up helping her – if she is lucky.

Perhaps she will be lucky as Russian families are usually closer than ours.

Oh, the part about making a fool out of myself. When we were walking to the cemetery, I was paying too much attention to the other marchers and too little attention to the muddy road. As a result, I fell on my muddy butt when I stepped in a pothole in the dirt road. Larisa helped me up and then, in the typical fashion of a loving wife hissed at me “How could you do that? Now everyone thinks that you’re drunk!” Apparently people fall down a lot in Russia, but not sober ones. Oops.

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