With the snow gone and the sun bright and high up in the sky, the weeding-digging-plowing-fertilizing-and-planting season begins. Working the land over the May Holidays is a venerated Russian tradition. Just try getting out of the city after 6 pm on April 30th – every outbound highway is backed up with nature-starved and duty-bound Muscovites fighting their way to their dacha plots.
My family used to be one of those Muscovites, way back when. Back before we relocated 5,000 miles west for a decade, and then some. Since we returned, our dacha revival efforts have been coming along frustratingly slowly, leaving us as the rare heathens without peasant-y obligations for the long weekends surrounding Labor Day (May 1st) and Victory Day (May 9th).
Two and a half years into ‘repatriation’ and still without a vegetable patch to tend to, my mother, sister and I have chosen another way to dedicate ourselves to the land of our ancestors: by going to the cemetery where my grandparents have been laid to rest for a little seasonal clean-up.
Russian cemeteries are strikingly visually different from their North American and Western European counterparts. If I had to sum it up in a single impression, Russian graveyards are a lot less sterile and orderly. Sure, the plots are all more or less the same size, but beyond that, from gravestones to border railing to decorative vegetation, it’s kind of a free-f-or all. A number of sites lay forgotten, tall weed grasses and prickly vines roaming free, with no caretaker to tame them. Some plots are pristine, with neatly trimmed grass or gravel cover and a simple metal cross to mark the head of the tomb; others feature elaborate marble statues that would make Rome blush, or large in-color portraits of the deceased. Cut fresh flowers can be seen lain at the tombstones after big religious holidays, when a lot of familial pilgrimages occur. Many families prefer to plant annuals and perennials right on top of the graves, and so from spring through fall the cemetery becomes a botanical garden, presenting every flower variety imaginable, from crawling, webby beds of forget-me-nots to tall, leafy peony bushes. Some people go a step further and plant actual trees; because of that, the open field where my grandfather was buried in the late 1980’s is now practically a small forest.
Yet nothing matches the popularity of faux flowers as gravesite decorations. Silk and plastic, roses and daisies, baskets and wreaths, in every natural and unnatural color under the sun – they are the go-to offering to the dead. As a kid I was absolutely entranced but the blindingly-bright variety of blooms, and always implored my grandma to buy the tackiest one when we went to “visit the relatives.” Of course then I didn’t want to leave the flowers on the graves – what a waste! – but to take home and play, especially to wear the garlands like they were leis and I was some wood nymph (pretty sure there is some Russian superstition that would deem it a Very Bad Idea to claim something that belongs to Death). I still feel a bit of that compulsion every time I enter the cemetery grounds and am greeted by rows of fake-flower stands. After all, it looks like it might be a long time before I can make fresh-flower garlands at my dacha.