“So what have you seen here in Odessa? The Opera House? The Potemkin Stairs?”
“Yeah, I saw the stairs, and today I spent my morning walking around the Second Christian Cemetery.”
“Did you really go there? People from here don’t go to that place.”
I prefer to travel in summer, particularly in Europe. In winter you feel the urgency to make the most out of the little sunlight you have everyday, but at the same time it’s so hard to get your day going when it’s freezing cold outside—especially if your rental apartment has a hammock.
That was my predicament in Odessa. On my second day there I woke up relatively early to go on a walking tour of the city, but the moment I opened the curtains I decided to scratch my plans and go see the Second Christian Cemetery. Why? The city, as seen from my 9th floor apartment, was being devoured by the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. I stormed out the door and headed for the cemetery.
As I rode down from the city center in a battered Soviet-era tram, the fog started to recede. Nevertheless, the conditions were still excellent to engage in a bit of taphotourism and test my new camera.
Odessa’s Second Christian Cemetery was opened in 1885 and was closed for burials in the year 2000. It is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.
I entered through the main gate and walked past the inquiring eyes of one of the caretakers, who sat smoking by the entrance. We nodded at each other in a silent zdravstvuj. The cemetery looked overwhelmingly big from the entrance, in part due to the fact that there was virtually no one there other than me and the caretakers (all of whom were wearing military uniforms for some reason).
I took an immediate turn to my left and walked through narrow paths lined with gravestones. Some of them where overgrown, others crumbling, and a few broken in pieces. Many of them were enclosed by wrought-iron fences, and there were more than a few cages as well. Some of the more modest burials were basically just dirt mounds with metal crosses made from tubes, with the names of the deceased simply scribbled on them by hand.
My wandering took me to the other end of the cemetery. From there I walked down the main avenue past the Orthodox chapel, taking my time to see the crumbling crypts, the rusting metal enclosures, and the vigilant busts of the dead. Every now and then I saw people lovingly taking care of a few graves, getting rid of weeds and branches and replacing them with flowers. They, together with the occasional caretaker speeding by on a battered bicycle, broke the otherwise palpable solitude. However, I was glad that I had the place all to myself.
Interestingly enough, at some point I felt like I was in Mexico. Why? Because even though the names on the gravestones were written in a different alphabet and most of the crosses were Orthodox, I saw similarities between the Slavic and Latin funeral cultures. There were many benches and even tables within the metal enclosures of many graves; some were even made of the same material. There were some wooden benches there too but, judging by the mold growing on them, it had been a while since someone had last paid the deceased a visit. I saw a few empty vodka bottles. I had seen the same dirt mounds with metal crosses in rural cemeteries in Mexico before, and wrought-iron enclosures are not uncommon there either.
I walked past a part of the cemetery containing the remains of around 6,000 soldiers of the Red Army who fell in World War II. The rows of plaques were guarded by two charging soldiers.
In some parts, the cemetery became a blur of weeds, branches and gravestones, and the sea of metal fences seemed to extend endlessly. It was striking that a lot of the more run-down graves were relatively recent—in some cases not even twenty years old—yet by the looks of them I would have guessed they were at least from the 1950s. Some of the gravestones were very detailed, with the portraits of the deceased engraved into them. There are even full-sized statues of the people buried there, gracefully standing next to their graves. However, the cemetery is in pretty rough shape: broken gravestones, crooked crosses, fading portraits. The whole scene had a strong Lovecraftian character.
On my way out I walked past a grave adorned with a Black Sea Fleet sailor’s hat. There were some dead flowers on top of it, and I wondered for how long they had been there and whether they’d ever be replaced.
The same caretaker was still sitting by the entrance, smoking another cigarette. I nodded in a silent spasibo. He acknowledged me and looked away.
Do you ever visit cemeteries when you travel? Which is the most impressive you’ve seen? Share it with the community!
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