Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes

The Novosibirsk Crematorium is a spacious complex serving both the living and the dead.

The first recorded account of cremation dates back at least 20,000 years and the practice appears in almost every culture. Gautama Buddha was supposedly cremated, and his ashes preserved in memorial stupas across India, where it has been practiced ever since. The ancient Greeks used cremation to aid the deceased in the afterlife – a tradition inherited by the Romans. However, with the spread of Christianity, cremation was deemed a pagan practice and ground burial became the dominant ritual.

Russian spirituality and tradition bore great respect for burial. Thus, until the 1917 Revolution, ground burial was the only method practiced, with rare exceptions in cases of armed conflict. After Soviet law allowed cremation, it took some time for the requisite facilities to appear. The first crematorium opened in 1920 at the bathhouse buildings on Vasilyevsky Island in St. Petersburg; however, it wasn’t operational for a long time due to a “lack of firewood.” Moscow’s first crematorium opened in 1927 and was set in an unfinished church at New Donskoy Cemetery. Cremation spread, not only through the Soviet population at large, but among members of the ruling party and other notable persons, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Maxim Gorky.  

In the 1990s the crematorium was closed and the church was restored to provide traditional Christian service. While the Russian Orthodox Church of today doesn’t welcome cremation, it isn’t forbidden. It’s becoming increasingly popular as people consider cremation a modern or ecological way to lay the dead to rest. There are more than 20 crematoriums in Russia nowadays, some with private business status. One of the most bizarre and spectacular is the Novosibirsk Crematorium. The enormous classical palace is more of a burial complex, with parks, attractions and a variety of services. They will even launch your ashes into outer space.