All memorials are strange

by Emily

A “bourgeouis” memorial stone (source: Tolkovatel’,

A few articles on striking Russian tombstones caught my eye today. The picture on the right is exemplary, rather than representative, but it’s definitely worth a few minutes to check out pictures:12, 3.

As the attention these memorials are getting testifies, these are fascinating and strange to Americans, but the comments on the second link indicate that they also unusual and evocative to many Russians. This is absolutely not what you would see in your average Russian graveyard. Some urban cemeteries are considered artistic and interesting enough to attract tourists on a regular basis, such as the one in Moscow where Stalin and Chekhov are buried, and though I haven’t been to the ones pictured myself, they may be similar.What’s interesting to me isn’t whether laser-engraved, lifelike, even life-sized photographs of men on tombstones is a crime against “good taste”, or a bizarre custom among a small subculture of Russian nouveau riche, though. It’s what, exactly, they are memorializing, and why.

One commenter in the English Russia article says,

These men have left their images on tombstones to be remembered, im wondering how many people each has killed? Whose families they have distroyed? Each of these men have left a mark in the world, they are infamous. They found power without glory, and are trying not to forgotton.

This is a compelling reading of these portrait stones, as they preserve powerful, masculine images of men (sometimes with their belongings, or in idealized settings) in long-lasting stone. It seems that the dead are looking out at the visitors. But as countless historical archaeologists have pointed out, the dead do not bury themselves. Rather, it is their families, relatives, or in some cases state or employers who determine whether and how their graves will be memorialized.

Cemeteries are places where the living build images of the people they knew ones according to their relationships and social values. When these change, practices in memorialization change. For instance, in Sarah Tarlow’s book Bereavement and Commemoration, the author found that non-elite Orcadian tombstones held very little personal information in the eighteenth century – often only initials that marked a grave site for families to visit – but came to stress relationships, particularly marriage, and the sadness of bereavement, parallel to more individualistic and romantic ideologies in the nineteenth century.

What’s really fantastic about Tarlow’s book is her discussion of why mourning attitudes changed in the Victorian era (think replacing your wardrobe and household furnishings with everything black) and the twentieth century (when a number of authors have insisted we repress and ignore death, since mourning has become much less public and material). She writes,

The challenge to the bereaved in the nineteenth century was in finding a means of expression which would signify outwardly the profundity and pain of inner grief….However, by the end of the last century, means of funerary expression such as the extravagant use of black, extended periods of mourning and a high degree of elaboration and ostentation in commemoration had been so frequently used that they lost some of their expressive power. The dramatic personal expression of the mid-nineteenth century had become cliched, which precipitated a crisis of expression, accentuated by confrontation with the appalling slaughter of the First World War. (p. 175-176)

She argues that when originally radical Victorian mourning practices began to seem cliched, people had to find new ways to express a sense of loss that felt so personal it could not be conventionalized, since one of the characteristics of modern Anglo-American societies is how focused on the value of individuals we are.

Could this be what is going on with the photographic tombstones? Are they really expressions of the power of the dead, in that they were ordered by the deceased before their deaths, or are they efforts of their loved ones to preserve their memories in lifelike ways? Could they be both, as conspicuous consumption but also offerings of love? Do they communicate that the sum of a person is his body, or the impression he makes – that there is no eternal life, only physical presence? (That would be quite the opposite of eighteenth century American gravestones, which stressed with “memento mori” that graves held only physical remains, while souls were eternal.)

And who are they for? Perhaps the stones with photographs of people with their cars or pipes are symbolic offerings to the dead, creating images of them with the things they loved, or as their loved ones imagine they would like to be remembered. The fact that few of them offer personal information, and some even lack names, implies to me that they are for private visitation and remembrance by people who knew the deceased, not public statements about power. The Tolkovatel’ article includes a few pictures of simple stones that include only nicknames and religious symbols or flowers – one says “tooth,” another “dollar.” Clearly, these are signs of private bonds and relationships, signs of intimacy lasting beyond death.

This is all speculation, of course, especially since I am not well-versed in Russian funerary traditions or the social context of wealthy life there (whether legally or illegally obtained). But there is more to be gained by wondering than by gawking.