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Social Identities

Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture

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Cemetery locus as a mechanism of socio-cultural


A. A. Sautkin

To cite this article: A. A. Sautkin (2016): Cemetery locus as a mechanism of socio-cultural

identity, Social Identities, DOI: 10.1080/13504630.2016.1175932

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Published online: 28 Apr 2016.

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Cemetery locus as a mechanism of socio-cultural identity

A. A. Sautkin
Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, Murmansk Arctic State University, Murmansk, Russian


In cultural studies of cemetery locus there is a very important aspect Received 31 October 2015
of understanding the cemetery as a tool for the formation of the Accepted 5 April 2016
socio-cultural identity of living people. I adhere to the point of
view that the cemetery has always produced, and continues to Identity; cemetery; death;
produce, a variety of identities. While during the pre-Modern
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Modernity; ancestors
period the cemetery was a necessary element of individual self-
understanding as a member of a certain community, in the
Modern era the cemetery produces more particularistic identities.
Modernity generates some universal and abstract schemes of
identification, and by means of the repression of death from
public consciousness, cemeteries lose their role as a focal point in
social communication. I draw attention to the radical utopian
ideas of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, who not only
considered the cemetery as a locus of memory, but also
proclaimed the task of the transformation of cemeteries into a
base for universal work on resurrection of dead ancestors and the
restoration of brotherly relations in all mankind.

The cemetery is a special socio-cultural locus1 having a large semiotic depth. It can be
considered in a variety of ways: as a sacred place, as an anthropological phenomena
that distinguishes a man who buries (homo sepeliens) from other living beings, as a part
of the social landscape (from the perspective of urban sociology), as a part of the
funeral industry (within the economic context), as an object of public policy etc. It is not
surprising that cemeteries often become the subject of special studies within thanatoso-
ciology and thanatophilosophy.
According to Michael C. Kearl, ‘cemeteries are cultural institutions that symbolically
dramatise many of the community’s basic beliefs and values about what kind of society
it is, who its members are, and what they aspire to be. Any change of the social ethos
is reflected accordingly in these cultural barometers’ (Kearl, 1989, p. 49).
In this article, we are going to deal with the particular issue of whether it is possible to
consider cemeteries as part of the mechanism of formation and reproduction of the social
and cultural identity. The point at issue is about how a cemetery is operated as an identity
generator for the living.

CONTACT A. A. Sautkin

© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

It goes without saying that cemeteries reflect the identities of people buried there, the
statuses and roles of their social life. In this aspect, cemeteries can be a source of recon-
struction of the social structure, social hierarchies, and the identity contours of a particular
community associated with a particular cemetery (see a brief overview on the issue at
Hellen, 2012, pp. 36–38). However, it should be taken into account that society constructs
a special status of ‘the deceased’, which is not determined by the social status of individ-
uals within their lifetime. As Michael P. Hellen notes, ‘a person’s identity in death does not
necessarily directly reflect the identity that he or she may have held in life but is instead a
reflection of their new status as deceased’ (Hellen, 2012, p. 37). In the world of the living,
the dead have their own specific functions determined by cultural conceptions about the
connection and relationship between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
We are mostly interested in how those representations, accumulated by the cemetery’s
semiosphere, influence the production of identities of the living people, who create the
cemeteries, take care of them and, ultimately, find their final resting place within them.
This issue seems to be redundant since the role of cemetery as a ‘place of memory’ is
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evident and commonly recognised. The cemetery combines a variety of meanings: it is a

home for ‘our’ dead, who constitute a kind of a background community, it is a ritual space
of remembrance (and hence the symbolic return of the dead into a circle of the living), it is
an area of memorialisation of fallen soldiers’ glory, as well as of war victims, and so on.
Identification, as shown by Jan Assmann, is a process of reflection on both the individual
and collective levels (Assman, 2011), turning mere belonging to a certain community into
co-affiliation, or awareness of who ‘we’ are in our similarity to members of a certain group
and our distinction from members of other groups. The identification is delimitation, and
while collisions with ‘otherness’ bring people to a realisation of the difference, the memory
of what unites the members of the group directs their thoughts to build some kind of a
‘similarity matrix.’ There is no doubt that the cemetery as a ‘place that holds memory’ is
one of the most important elements of the social structure which forms the mentioned
However, there are at least two points that are able to problematise this seemingly
obvious identification function of cemeteries.
Firstly, in modern society the attitude towards death and the dead is significantly differ-
ent from that of previous periods, and the Western man of the Modern Era rather seeks to
get rid of thoughts about death and from contact with the dead than to develop them.
On the one hand, after the publication of works by Philippe Ariès (Ariès, 1981), Norbert
Elias (Elias, 1985), Geoffrey Gorer (Gorer, 1967), Jean Baudrillard (Baudrillard, 1998) (we list
just a few of the most famous names, while the total number of researchers is almost
uncountable) the idea of the repression of death (die Verdrängung des Todes, in
German) seems to have become a commonplace of thanatological researches; on the
other hand, this issue continues to be the subject of critical debate.2 For example,
Hermann Lübbe writes: ‘Der aufgeklärte Übergang von der alten Kirchhofskultur zum
modernen, auch hygienisch geordneten Friedhofswesen ist nicht eo ipso ein Vorgang
aus religiöser Dekadenz im Verhältnis der Lebenden zu den Toten’ (Lübbe, 1994, p. 40).
[The Enlightenment transition from the old churchyard culture to the modern character
of the cemeteries as a well-ordered one (particularly hygienically), is not eo ipso a
process caused by the decline of the religious attitude of the living to the dead]. And
Tony Walter (Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath), in his book ‘The Revival of

Death’ considers that, despite the fact that mourning has been displaced into the private
sphere, in view of increasing life expectancy and the improving economic situation of
modern people, people’s emotional vulnerability and depth of loss experience increases
in comparison with the last century. He writes:
Mellor is correct to say that death in modernity is present in private, but wrong to suggest that
it is absent in public. Ariès is correct to say that the pain of loss is largely hidden, but wrong if
he is implying that death itself is hidden. The problem is rather that private experience and
public discourse do not tally . . . Revival [of death – A.S.] – the critique of this modern way
of death – derives from this contradiction . . . and intends to abolish it. (Walter, 1994, p. 23)

In this context, the study of identity through the prism of cemetery consideration will
probably be not as trivial as it might at first seem.
Secondly, it is necessary to define the kinds of identities which can be generated and
reproduced by such a specific mechanism as the cemetery locus. In other words, we would
like to find out the role of cemetery in the process of social and cultural identification
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within the modern Western civilisation, including Russia (in spite of all the specificity of
its cultural landscape and historic ways). This issue considers the following: whether the
cemetery really affects the minds of people today as value generators which can
produce the above-mentioned delimitation of one group from the other and integrate
social groups on various grounds.
In this regard, we need to consider the change of attitude to death observed over the
past four hundred years, i.e. during the period of ‘long Modernity’ (of course, bearing in
mind considerable abstraction of the term for its failure to distinguish appreciable speci-
ficity of some individual periods). We would also like to reveal a definite difference in the
identification practices in the urban environment and rural communities. Of course, one
should avoid excessive generalisations because in each country, even in each region,
there are sometimes very significant differences. However, some common tendencies
do exist and we would like to identify them.

The case of the post-Soviet cemetery vs. pre-Modern cemeteries and

In Russia there are large cities founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, as for
example Murmansk (the city in which this author lives), the biggest port in the Arctic
Circle founded in 1916. The development of such cities took place during the Soviet
period greatly affected their cemeteries. In fact, the cemeteries arose together with the
cities beyond any tradition peculiar to the previous periods.
The Soviet government consistently pursued the secularisation of public life, starting
with the date of publication of the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars on 23
January 1918 (‘On the separation of the church from the state and the school from the
church’) and proclamation of the first Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist
Republic in 1918 (Constitution of the RSFSR, 1918). Article 13 of the Constitution said that
‘for the purpose of securing to the workers real freedom of conscience, the church is to
be separated from the state and the school from the church, and the right of religious
and anti-religious propaganda is accorded to every citizen’. However, first and foremost
it meant anti-religious propaganda raised to the status of public policy. A striking

example of this is the campaign for the opening and seizure of the relics in temples and
monasteries, actively pursued by the Bolsheviks in 1919–1920 (including the Kola
In this situation, the cemetery was considered only in its functional aspect, beyond
sacred connotations; at the administrative level it was provided by the seizure of authority
from the church and vesting local Soviets with power over all cemeteries, crematoria, mor-
tuaries, and funeral ceremonies in accordance with paragraph 1 of the Decree of the
Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR of 17 December, 1918, ‘On the cemeteries
and funerals’. Paragraph 2 of the Decree reads: ‘The same funeral is established for all citi-
zens. The division of burial places and funerals into categories is eliminated. Note: religious
funeral ceremonies in churches and cemeteries may be performed at the request of rela-
tives and friends of the deceased at their own expense’.
That meant the homogenisation of cemetery space and the unification of the funeral
ceremony as purely secular as a general rule. Of course, after the collapse of the Soviet
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Union, there have been many changes, in particular the foundation of an Orthodox
church in honour of St. Theodora of Constantinople (consecrated 17 September 2010),
but the overall character of the ceremonial actions has not undergone much
The location of the Murmansk cemeteries is also very significant. The old civilian cem-
etery in Murmansk (closed for burials since 1971) is located on the outskirts of the city, in
the industrial zone near the incinerator plant. The new cemetery is removed from the city
by about 7km; in fact, between Murmansk and its cemetery lies a small town, Kola.
A quite remarkable fact is that historians find it difficult to determine the location of the
first cemetery in Murmansk: there are several versions, but none of them are sufficiently
justified (see Fedorov & Sinitsky, 2008, pp. 73–74). Paradoxically, there are no archival
documents or material evidence that could clarify the matter.
The absolute secularisation of the Communist era led to the Murmansk cemeteries not
having sectors differentiated by the religion of the deceased. There is also no division by
ethnic criterion according to the International Soviet ideology. These cemeteries are
homogeneous, except for the military sector, which function as a glory memorial. The
level of standardisation and unification of cemetery space is very high, while the atomisa-
tion of living individuals is reflected in the cemetery too: cemetery visitors know only the
graves of their own deceased and nothing about those buried in the adjacent graves. All
farewell ceremonies are held in the mortuary and in the cemetery, therefore they are actu-
ally removed from the sphere of public observation. A church funeral service following the
Orthodox rite is also a private decision. There is no tradition of notifying the neighbours
about someone’s death, the publication of obituaries is also unusual.
This situation is typical for relatively large Russian industrial towns, and not only for
those that arose during the Soviet era, as the latter reformatted pre-existing tradition in
a new way. Does the cemetery in such a situation serve as an identification mechanism?
In order to identify themselves with their community by means of the dead, the living
must first of all identify themselves with the deceased members of the community. That
means a necessity for the integration of the dead into the community of the living, the
socialisation of the deceased. The attitude towards the dead has always been ambivalent
and implied their separation from the living, whilst at the same time maintaining contact

with the dead in the form of rituals, celebrations etc. The dead, who belong to a different
world, nevertheless continue to participate in public life.
The cemetery can be viewed as a social space, not only in terms of its being human-
made and its abundance of various symbolic meanings, but also in the sense that it is
the place of the presence of the dead that forms a kind of necrosociety which comp-
lements the society of the living. This archaic model of ‘together-with-the-dead’ living pro-
vides group integration and development of group identity with ultimate use of semiotic
potential of the cemetery.
The cemetery is a city of the dead, and the graves are their homes. We believe that there
is no need to give specific illustrations for this thesis, as they can easily be found in a
variety of anthropological and ethnographical researches, and dissimilarity of various reli-
gious traditions and ideas of Man’s posthumous destiny does not affect the concept of the
graves being the homes for the dead (of course, it applies only to settled peoples).4 In its
social sense the city of the dead (necropolis) is an extension of the city of the living, and
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the medieval practice of constructing cemeteries within the boundaries of settlements

(including cities) clearly shows us that unity.
As Richard A. Etlin notes,
for about a thousand years, since the seventh or eighth century, Christians had been burying
their dead inside parish churches and in adjacent or neighboring cemeteries. The dead play
an important role in the spiritual life of the community. Their presence served as memento
mori, reminders of human mortality. This became especially vivid through the evidence of
their skulls and bones visible in the charnel houses, created beginning in the late
fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, that enclosed the burial grounds. (Etlin, 1994,
pp. 148–149)

The visible and outward presence of the dead in addition to its memento mori function
served to motivate the living to pray for the souls of the dead, to find meaning for their
own behaviour within sin/righteousness parameters.
The described model is typical for relatively small communities living in rural areas pre-
serving residues of the pagan era in their views of death. The identification with the clan
(family) is inherent for such communities. At the same time, for a community where every-
one knows everyone, the cemetery serves as a reminder of the unity of the community.
The particular nature of this identity is unmistakable, especially when it comes to pre-
industrial periods of human history. Even in the case of medieval city cemeteries, we
are dealing with the same model, only slightly transformed due to the influence of Chris-
tian ideas and the specifics of urban life.
With the advent of the Industrial Age, which caused the inflow of former rural popu-
lation to cities, some part of the traditional beliefs was carried over to the urban conditions.
However, the actual spatial dimensions of cities, their bigger population, the lack of per-
sonal acquaintance of everyone with everyone and the ever-increasing atomisation of
individuals in urban areas, do not allow the city cemetery to function in the same identi-
fication mode as the rural cemetery. The city cemeteries in their symbolic task were
increasingly more correlating with the universalisation and abstraction of identities in
Modernity (a city resident is no longer a member of the clan, the community, not even
a member of the guild or corporation, he is just some kind of impersonal representative
of the nation, buried in a nationally standardised cemetery).

Thomas A. Kselman, analysing the French folk attitudes towards death and the dead (as
expressed in proverbs, tokens, and stories), notes the appearance of a systematic interest
in folklore in the second half of the nineteenth century, which, in his opinion, was not acci-
dental: ‘The appeal of folklore, and particularly of beliefs and practices surrounding death,
derives in part from a . . . desire to engage with a culture in which value and meaning were
thought to be not only uncontested but also sanctioned by family and community tra-
ditions’ (Kselman, 1993, p. 37).
The rise of academic folkloristics in the age of the final devastation of traditional
pre-industrial lifestyle in the nineteenth century is extremely significant. It is the charac-
teristic feature of all European countries. On the one hand, such an interest towards
the world of folk ideas and beliefs was necessary for the creation of new identity
forms on a more abstract level of nation, for folk plots and characters were the
elements that formed national identity in reflexive and well-minded ways. On the
other hand, the whole complexity of living and functional ideas of national soul was
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lost in folkloristics, becoming a subject of exterior scientific analysis. Naum Berkovsky

(a famous Russian researcher of German Romanticism) has commented on the Roman-
tics’ interest in folklore: ‘By understanding their “primary”, the nations, cultures, and
individuals became themselves, fulfilling their destiny’ (Berkovsky, 1974, p. 44).
However, that ‘primary’ (traditional beliefs) went through a metamorphosis, not
being actualised in its initial essence, but transformed in accordance with conditions
of new social modes.
The aforementioned post-Soviet cemetery in a northern Russian city can serve as an
excellent illustration of this new relationship to death: in our view, there is a rupture of
the united community of living and dead; here there is separation and the isolation of
the dead. As noted above, the reintegration of the dead into the community of the
living is an essential element of identification – but this element is missing here as a col-
lective practice, preserved only in the form of the individual communications of each
person with the family. The collective practices and experiences are the exact basis for
the formation of stable socio-cultural identities.
The living are not appealing to the dead anymore. It may seem that such a state of
affairs is the result of specific USSR secularisation policy, but, as we see it, this Soviet
anti-religiousness (in some cases – irreligiousness) is nothing more than the logical conse-
quence of the general decline of religious consciousness that characterises the era of Late
Modernity. In a sense, Soviet atheism is just the ultimate development of the Enlighten-
ment principles, a little belatedly in comparison with Western Europe, and perhaps for
this reason, quite radical.
Identification is built up by the establishment of relations with similar things, and deli-
mitation with the things that differ (other, alien, not-ours). Traditional cemeteries built up
lines to separate Christians from the sons of other religions (e.g. the Jewish people, con-
fined in ghettos within their cemeteries); ‘good Christians’ who had a right to be buried
in holy ground, from those having no such rights (suicides, heretics etc.); members of
the community, from aliens. We suppose that the ‘sin/righteousness’ border also operated
over the cemetery area, especially if there were Saints’ relics buried there: the border
united sinners in understanding their imperfection as contrasted with the Saint, but it
also united sinners with the Saint – in hope for their salvation through the Saint’s

mediation. We may say that pre-Modern cemetery set some existential coordinates in the
human mind.

Disunity between the living and the dead as a result of the disintegration
of traditional social structures
It is obvious that the above described functioning of the cemetery in a symbolical space of
culture is possible only on the condition that self-knowledge of society and its basic sym-
bolism are founded in mythology or religion. The society of the Modern Age lost its sense
of unity with the understood Cosmos. The secularisation of European society led to the
strengthening divorce of the worlds of the living and the dead. Armin Nassehi said that
the late-medieval Cosmos was still marked with religious ‘stamping’ in all kinds of acts,
including law, politics, economics, knowledge, and education (Nassehi, 1992, p. 14). It
was the religious influence that provided unity of all life aspects and world-view entirety.
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But over the course of time social forms were steadily losing their religious legitimation
and finally became self-sufficient areas with their own principles. Religion lost its
meaning as the universal symbolic system, becoming a kind of marginal part of society.
Such separation of different kinds of activity (usually called ‘functional differentiation’ in
sociology) pre-supposes the disappearance of a single centre of meanings’ creation. As
a result, personal being and personal death lost their former meaning. Attempts of return-
ing to the lost meaning are being realised in polycentric and pluralistic culture space, so in
the end they also create a pluralistic complex of personal ideas about life and death.
As Nassehi summarised: ‘Die gesellschaftlichen Funktionsbereiche haben sich von der
existentiellen Perspektive der handelnden Menschen in ihnen fast gaenzlich abgekoppelt,
so dass der Tod als existentielles Problem endlicher Menschen als Problem von
gesellschaftlichen Teilsystemen ausfällt’ (Nassehi, 1992, p. 15). [Functional areas of
society became almost fully separated from the existential perspective of people acting
in those areas, so death as an existential problem of finite human beings was cancelled
as a problem of social sub-systems].
This groundlessness of existence, not rooted in the Transcendent, becomes the main
idea of the Modernity. The famous Russian philosopher Paul Florensky writes in this con-
nection that
the man, without admitting even to himself his apostasy from God and even formally protect-
ing religion, actually step by step tries to win the areas of his autonomy from the religion and
therefore strikes the corresponding aspects from the religion as supposedly non-essential and
got there historically by accident. (Florensky, 1996, p. 547)

This process of the desacralisation of the world (die Entzauberung der Welt, in terms of Max
Weber) finishes in Modern times, and the attitude to death became one of the first
phenomena of human existence to be ‘removed from religion’.
The death of one single person in pre-Modern society had a meaning as a public occur-
rence, being directly connected to the life of the community, not only as a certain point in
time, but also in its duration, as the afterlife of the society member was not excluded from
the life of the living, being integrated in it.
We think that individualisation of the death and privatisation of mourning are the most
important characteristics of the modern desacralised situation in which cemeteries

function. Keeping death within eyesight is not necessary anymore for the functioning of
society. So, here is the question – what kind of identities do cemeteries create and
support nowadays?
Perhaps the tense interest in death described by J. Huizinga in ‘The Autumn of the
Middle Ages’ was caused by that materialistic spirit of human desperation with inevitability
and suddenness of death. It was expressed in extremely naturalistic images of cadaverous
decomposition, but the medicine evolution was essentially changing the human percep-
tion of death, and the medicalisation of death discourse in the Modern age logically wea-
kened that existential tension of reflection on our finitude.
The position of the cemetery in the centre of public relations (both as a site and a
symbol) does not mean that death eclipses everyday life, it means that death is incorpor-
ated into the very structure of those everyday affairs to give them wholeness of sense. In
the Modern age, everyday affairs eclipse death excluding it from mind and activity struc-
tures. Of course, this exclusion is not absolute, but it shows in details.
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Thus, there are lots of body-oriented practices associated with a healthy lifestyle, with
body wellness and development, there is a separate ‘beauty industry’, and body care
becomes an integral part of the average conception of a comfortable life, which are broad-
cast by the mass media. In this carnival of life there is no time for thinking about the inevi-
table end.
Any mentions of death are also withdrawn from information addressed to children. (It is
interesting that even literary works undergo certain editing, for example, in the Soviet
publications of a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the fact was omitted that the
brother of Ole Lukkoye was called Death.) According to Article 5 of the Russian Federal
Law of 29.12.2010 No. 436 ‘On protection of children from information harmful to their
health and development’, dissemination of certain information among children is
limited, that is information that causes fear, terror or panic, including anything provided
in the form of images or descriptions in a dehumanising form of non-violent death,
disease, suicide, dissemination, traffic accident or catastrophe, and (or) their
Those signs of cultural policy in relation to death are very significant and they bring to
mind Heidegger’s idea that a person, being aware of human mortality, nevertheless seeks
to evade recognition of the fact that it is he/she who is mortal, and it is public talking that
helps him: ‘The public interpretation of Da-sein says that “one dies” because in this way
everybody can convince him/herself that in no case is it I myself, for this one is no one.
“Dying” is levelled down to an event which does concern Da-sein, but which belongs to
no one in particular. If idle talk is always ambiguous, so is this way of talking about
death . . . the they justifies and aggravates the temptation of covering over for itself its
ownmost being-to-death’ (Heidegger, 1996, p. 234).
Of course, Heidegger sought to identify the universal structures of Da-sein, but in the
above quotation we tend to perceive the manifestation of the late Modernity line,
which is difficult to confuse with the attitudes of the previous eras. Heidegger’s call ‘to
permit the courage to have Angst about death’ is applied to the human of today and
expresses the awareness of the need to face death once again.
Differentiation of social sub-systems combined with the secularisation of society led to
the determination of cemeteries by science and politics. The state (the political institution)
operating in accordance with sanitary and hygienic ideas (the scientific discourse), moved

cemeteries outside of the city areas: as examples, the renovation of cemeteries in France in
the eighteenth century (see in particular Etlin, 1984), of Joseph II in Austria and of Peter the
Great, and later Senate in Russia. Medicine and bureaucracy obscure death with shutters
(or ‘screens’) of statistics, scientific explanations for the causes of death and rational argu-
ments about the proper disposal of dead bodies.
We suppose that cemeteries in this situation gradually change the types of produced
identities: they no longer provide a person’s identification with the whole society, but
they keep on generating private, particular identifications – with family, ancestors, and
certain groups (ethnical, confessional etc.). It may also be noted that after being placed
under the unifying influence of state authority, cemeteries started being used by the
state for the creation of more abstract identification (national, class, etc). It is expressed
in setting the cults of heroes, famous scholars, artists, industrialists. Cemeteries can be
used as an ideological tool, becoming a scene for different patriotic actions, but
because of the isolation of the dead from the living those actions are rather distanced
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from everyday life. Their formal character can also cause certain alienation of the
people involved.
Even in the conditions of the desacralised society of today, some amplitudinous shocks
with numerous victims and affecting wide masses of people could probably be capable of
giving back to cemeteries their former function of identifying the individual with the
whole community. Wars or natural catastrophes on a national scale to some extent are
able to rebuild the feeling of unity while the living memory remains, i.e. the witnesses
of those events are still alive. Later the state can use those events for its ideological
needs, as well as use the cemeteries of war victims, but the new generations will have
no existential connection with such cemeteries, so the base for identification will be
The Piskaryovskoye Cemetery in Saint Petersburg may serve as an example. It is a
famous memorial dedicated to victims of the Siege of Leningrad by German Nazis (8 Sep-
tember 1941 – 27 January 1944). The cemetery includes 470,000 graves of citizens who
died during the Siege. We may suppose (but this assumption still needs empiric verifica-
tion), that for the modern younger generation of Saint Petersburg this cemetery is mostly
an abstract ‘memory place’ of tragic events of Russian history of the twentieth century, but
not a means of identification with the Russian (Soviet) people; rather now this cemetery
forms a more particular identity of ‘St. Petersburg’s residents’.5
Another example is the collective grave in the centre of Murmansk, on which in 1927 a
constructivism-style monument to the victims of foreign intervention in 1918–1920 was
erected. In Soviet times the construction was used as a focal point during the festive meet-
ings, but in the post-Soviet era the monument lost that function, and people even began
to forget the fact that there is a collective grave at its base. The small park surrounding the
monument is a popular place for meetings and walks, and just-married couples are often
photographed at the monument – without any connection with the tragic and heroic
context, and many young people are unaware that their wedding photo shoots are
taken on the grave itself.
In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Katherine Verdery looks into the matter of the state
using dead bodies for making national identity. She draws attention to the fact that the
national identity in ideological discourses is often associated with such categories as
kinship (and we should note that this category is far less abstract than ‘nationality’ and

is closer to everyday human experience). National identity ‘parasitises’ on kinship identity,

and as a result the dead are being viewed as ancestors in the most archaic way: ‘Nation-
alism is thus a kind of ancestor worship, a system of patrilineal kinship, in which national
heroes occupy the place of clan elders in defining a nation as a noble lineage’ (Verdery,
1999, p. 41).
Unexpectedly, there are different archaic beliefs and attitudes towards death, prevailing
in the consciousness of the inhabitants of rural areas which are reinforced in the modern
political context at the national level as a means of integration of the nation, and that pol-
itical action takes the form of specific procedures with the dead bodies. Katherine Verdery
analyses the cases of displacement of prominent people’s remains from abroad to their
homeland, followed by a solemn burial (as the ‘repatriation’ of Bela Bartok, or the Roma-
nian Bishop Inochentie Micu, or the heart of the Bulgarian tsar Boris etc.).
Here we deal with the simulation of the archaic which is so typical of the post-moder-
nist era: the dead bodies represent traditional beliefs in the conditions when those beliefs
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have actually ceased to be a living force. In the end there is a sign (a dead body), which as a
typical simulacrum is referring to nothing but itself; however it has the ability to create
reality – the reality of political identity, formulated in terms of nationalism. Verdery
mostly analyses the East European countries during the post-communist era, for which
similar identification schemes were necessary to replace the previous forms of identity.
In our opinion, the gap between the world of the dead and that of the living is clearly
shown in the updating of ‘the evil dead’ image, at the level of archaic understanding of
death always accompanied by anti-thesis – ‘the good dead’ image (an ancestor). The arch-
aisation of the mass consciousness via political means could be compared to the archaic
images in popular culture.
At the level of common superstitions and the lower forms of folklore (including ‘urban
legends’ as a contemporary variant of the old genre of memorates) one can easily find
echoes of archaic attitudes, but the mainstream interpretation of death in the Modern
period is totally different in character, viz. it is best expressed in some figure of contem-
porary popular culture. The total destruction of the connection between the living and
the dead used to be a single community, and even their turning into two separate
hostile communities is clearly apparent in such sub-genres as modern horror cinema, as
films about the living dead (hereafter we will refer to them as ‘zombie movies’, bearing
in mind that the ‘zombie’ word in this context has lost its original meaning, dating back
to voodoo practices). We believe that the products of modern mass culture can be seen
as an expression of the basic attitudes of industrial society (in this case in relation to
death) to the same extent as folklore is the expression of such attitudes in pre-industrial
society. In fact, ‘zombie movies’ are a separate and highly developed genre of horror
film. A modern canon for depicting the ‘walking dead’ was created in 1968 by the Amer-
ican director George Romero with the release of his black-and-white picture ‘Night of the
Living Dead’ which later came to attraсt a cult following.
Zombie movies usually describe a situation of total war, caused by the dead raised from
their graves to fight against the living. In the classic films of the genre (e.g. the already
mentioned Romero film, ‘Let Sleeping Corpses Lie’ by Jorge Grau [it was filmed in
1974], ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ by Dan O’Bannon [the film was created in 1986]
etc.) the cemetery is portrayed as a place of threat, which is later implemented in the
form of rotten walking corpses, seeking to devour the living. Rational explanation of

those events is not that essential (very often some kind of chemical or radiation causes the
dead to return to life); the more important thing is that the dead are considered as a
hostile force with which there can be no communication (see Sautkin, 2015b).
However, if we talk about contemporary zombie movies (shot during the last 15 years),
the depiction of the living dead is changing: they have the ability to communicate, and
people try to include them into their everyday life (as in the ‘Shaun of the Dead’ that
was filmed in 2004 by Edgar Wright). Furthermore, some young people are trying to be
like zombies, identifying themselves with them. This situation only characterises the
social and psychological attitudes of contemporary culture, in which it is more comfortable
to be a zombie than to be alive. The fundamental gap between the living and the dead
remains, but is just taking on a grotesque form. Kyle W. Bishop writes: ‘the Millennial Gen-
eration embraces the zombie so enthusiastically because they are essentially zombies
already. Technology and social networking have arguably made people even more
removed and isolated from social interaction and communal behaviour’ (Bishop, 2015,
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p. 37).
In our opinion here again we have the same avoidance of death: an attempt to try on an
image of the dead, but the dead alive, revived! Those youth zombie flash mobs allow
transformation into an entity that is excluded from the usual human system of values
and norms, and therefore is not obliged to take responsibility or, moreover, to think
about death, because it is already dead. However, it is just a kind of new life form, a blas-
phemous act reminiscent of the Resurrection.

The cemetery as a tool for the reintegration of mankind: Nikolai Fedorov’s

Despite the fact that modern ideas about death preserve relics of archaic beliefs, in the
conditions of urbanism the cemetery mostly loses its original function of linking the
living and the dead. The discussion about the ‘repression of death’ in the Modern
culture has its foundation; however, the post-traditional nature of contemporary society,
in our view, pre-supposes avoiding death (although in the virtual images death is con-
stantly present in the media, movies, computer games etc.). However, this virtualised
death is only a set of representations, taking us away from the comprehension of the
fact that we are exactly the ones who are mortal. Death on the screen is someone else’s
death; it has no relation to us, being ejected beyond the everyday life. A well-known
Russian scholar of Slavic funeral rites, Olga Sedakova, describes this situation as ‘threaten-
ing this-world orientation, imprudent egoism of the ‘living ones’ (Sedakova, 2004, p. 278).
In this regard we would like to refer to the works of the Russian philosopher Nikolai
Fedorov (1829–1903), who long before P. Ariès and G. Gorer turned to the subject of
the separation of the dead from the living in a very peculiar context of his own philosophy.
The main theme of Fedorov’s philosophy is the idea that death is an absolute evil that
requires active overcoming, and not in the afterlife, but directly in the material world.
His radical utopian project combines religious motifs with positivist ideas, archaic and
futurism. Fedorov considers the fight against death by the forces of science as the task
entrusted to humanity by God, and the resurrection of Christ is its prototype. The main
task of humanity is to overcome disunity in the world, gaining immortality, and – most
importantly – to bring back to life all those who died, which literally means bodily

resurrection of all the past generations. That is the central idea of all works by Fedorov,
known as ‘philosophy of common task’.6
Death in the material world is just a consequence of the general ‘non-brotherly’ (or
‘non-related’) state of world and mankind. Fedorov uses the Kremlin as a symbol of over-
coming of death and non-brotherhood (in Old Russia it was a word for the central city for-
tification, or the city surrounded by strong walls). The most famous one is the Moscow
Kremlin, and it is the subject of Fedorov’s reasoning. The philosopher characterises the
function of the Kremlin:
From the outside the Kremlin is a formidable fortress, built by nature, fortified by human
ability, which serves both for defence and for attack, for protection and for enslavement . . .
From the inside the Kremlin is different … here are the graves of ancestors with the
temple over them; here is what is entrusted by ancestors, what was left of them, what is
the most expensive, devoutly revered, the most beloved; the forefathers are here themselves
in their remains, and there is nothing more sacred in the Kremlin, which was built entirely for
their protection and keeping. (Fedorov, 1997a, p. 78)
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The Kremlin represents a contradiction: on the one hand, it is a military fortress expressing
the spirit of non-brotherhood and disunity; on the other hand, it is a cemetery, a sacral
place of preservation of ancestors’ ashes, the centre for gatherings of people. It is peculiar
that the forefathers’ ashes are considered as the only supreme value on the basis of which
people are able to unite.
In addition, the Kremlin also includes many churches. Fedorov draws attention to the
fact that the Kremlin had no special Cathedral of the Resurrection, because the Kremlin
itself was such a cathedral (Fedorov, 1997b, p. 81). However, it should be understood
not only as a metaphor: according to Fedorov, the Kremlin must become the place
where death will be finally overcome. There is a project of the Kremlin as a multi-dimen-
sional institution combining the functions of a cemetery, church, museum, school and, last
but not least, research centre for the revival of the dead.
Fedorov declares:
The Kremlin School, into which all rural cemeteries will turn, and the whole earth as the ashes
of the fathers – the Kremlin-school combining school, camp, museum, and temple. It is not the
secularised Kremlin, in which ramparts and walls will be replaced by boulevards and cafés etc.
Becoming more and more sacred, the Kremlin will combine religionisation with scientification,
in other words, knowledge coupled with the act. (Fedorov, 1997c, p. 91)

‘Knowledge coupled with the act’, in Fedorov’s terms, means efforts to achieve practical
immortality and the resurrection of dead ancestors. Restoration of ‘kinship’ (or ‘brother-
hood’) of all living people is only possible when communication with the dead is restored.
The Kremlin becomes the main image of the scientist-religious utopia, which must over-
come all the evil brought to humanity by the destruction of the traditional order during
the development of industrial society and capitalist relations. Industrial civilisation, accord-
ing to the Russian philosopher, in the future will come to the sublation (Aufhebung, in the
Hegelian terms) of all that it has created, and will return on a new level to the archaic
society where the immortal descendants will be united with the resurrected ancestors.
And the Kremlin as the cemetery is the key to these transformations, both social and spiri-
tual. All the land and the soil are generally associated by Fedorov with the ashes of ances-
tors. Walking through the land, eating its fruits, the descendants absorb their ancestors; it

is a kind of cannibalism, which should be abolished by joint work on the resurrection of the
The Kremlin as a cemetery should be a museum, a place of preservation of cultural
memory, but also a school!7 Fedorov pays much attention to the issue of painting the
walls of the Kremlin with historical paintings. In his view, it would be a powerful edu-
cational stimulus for the people for reflecting on the Resurrection. And all those transform-
ations of the Kremlin as the central cemetery should be a model for all other cities that will
have to make their own cemeteries their centres, thus they ‘will become the villages,
because the difference between a city and a village is that the village has its cemetery
inside, in the centre, while the city has it outside of its borders’ (Fedorov, 1997d, p. 97).
As we see, Fedorov clearly contrasts the city with the village, linking with the latter the
idea of the archaic community whose unity is ensured through the cemetery. The new
society should be a synthesis of traditional rural communities (Gemeinschaften) and indus-
trial-scientific power shifted towards the task of resurrection of the ancestors. The ceme-
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tery in this model functions as the main mechanism of identification of descendants with
their ancestors, and therefore with each other.
It is indicative that Fedorov considers hostility to the Kremlin as a symptom of the
modern desacralised worldview, linking it to the Western influence on Russian culture.
In a sense this view is well-grounded, for the modernisation of Russia, its turning into a
secularised industrial society was carried on with some delay (compared to Western
Europe). Consequently Europe was seen as the main agent of such civilisation changes,
and Russian ‘Westernisers’ proclaimed the need for the fast liberation of their country
from its archaic traditions. Among the ‘haters’ of the Kremlin, Fedorov lists a philosopher
Peter Chaadayev, a lawyer and historian Konstantin Kavelin, and a writer Leo Tolstoy. It is
rather debatable whether those notable persons’ ideological orientations really were pro-
Western; however, for Fedorov the main focus is not on their worldview as a whole, but
namely on the disregard for their ancestors.
Fedorov wrote about Leo Tolstoy: ‘Tolstoy represents the completion of the Westerni-
sers’ movement, agreement of the living with complete oblivion of the dead. “Memento
vivere” means to him simply “forget about the dead”, for he hates exhibitions as full
meaning of the above-mentioned expression; he also hates museums and cemeteries,
and especially the Kremlin’ (Fedorov, 1997e, p. 93).
Not discussing the validity of Fedorov’s assessment, we would just like to stress the
main point: Fedorov believes that the basic tendency of Western civilization is to
‘condemn the dead to oblivion’, in other words, the displacement of reflection on death
to the periphery of consciousness, and the dead to the periphery of social life.
‘Memento vivere’ as an expression aptly describes the situation where the interest in the
this-world material life overshadows the other dimensions of humans, transforming
their minds and turning them away from traditional ways of positing themselves in the
world. Nikolai Fedorov restores the rights of cemetery as a place that is intended not
only for passively mourning for the dead. Archaic burial ritual was an effective expression
of the dual objectives: (1) to separate the dead from the living (and to direct them to the
underworld), (2) to establish a productive relationship between the dead and the living.
Taking this into consideration, Fedorov’s ‘common task’ can be viewed as a revival of
such ritual with the modified purpose: to return the deceased from the ashes to the
world of the living and restore their status as members of our community.

Fedorov’s utopia is focused on the restoration of the archaic feeling of kinship; there-
fore the cemetery has to produce patrimonial identity. However Fedorov speaks about
the restoration of brotherhood around the world, about overcoming hostility between
nations. Thus the identity made by the cemetery expresses not so much patrimonial
and national memory (of the Russians, Germans, British etc.), but all-human. In Fedorov’s
works the words ‘fathers’, ‘ancestors’ are most often applied to mankind in general. The
paradox of this idea is as follows: the thinker approves the need of the revival of
archaic consciousness structures, but he assumes that with their help identity will lose
its archaic features and will become universal.

As we have tried to reveal, the cemetery locus can be considered as an important element
in the origination of socio-cultural identity. The traditional pre-modernistic culture kept
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constant reminders of death as a powerful factor in the formation of values and inte-
gration of individuals. Post-traditional culture loses that tense mortality experience,
both at the level of the dominant discourse and social practices.
The modern urbanistic type of cemetery, developed in the nineteenth century, and the
corresponding culture of memory have significantly transformed over two centuries.
Social isolation of the dead, as well as the dying, in our opinion, is nowadays an inherent
feature of the attitude to death. The cemetery still symbolises the individual’s relation to
the death and communication with the dead. However, as Nikolai Fedorov rightly noticed,
the cemetery ceased to be a binding element in the social system. Identities generated by
cemeteries have lost their communitarian character. Cemeteries in a big city generate a
particularistic identity, becoming only conglomerations of individual life stories and singu-
lar grieving.
Certainly it is necessary to take into consideration the differences of the funeral tra-
ditions in different countries. In some cases we cannot clearly describe the situation
even in one country (for example, in Post-Soviet Russia) because of its multi-ethnic and
multi-religious character. However, despite the heterogeneity of the funeral sphere in
Russia, we can speak about general trends, which are the privatisation of mourning, the
unification of the procedural elements, and the transfer of the funeral organisation func-
tion to professional agencies, i.e. the alienation of the dead from the relatives.
Those features of urban cemeteries’ functioning allow us to conclude that cemetery as
the locus of death ceases its function of social identity production. The dead are no longer
needed by the living. Living people form their identity based on the diverse possibilities of
life, and not on an idea of death.
However, those observations apply only to the urban environment. In rural areas and
in small communities the elements of the traditional attitude to death continue to exist,
and the cemetery to some extent continues to produce communitarian identity. Thus,
the picture is very ambiguous and this duality of archeomodern requires further
Nikolai Fedorov was deeply aware of the gap between the living and the dead, fathers
and offspring. In his patriarchal futuristic utopia he tried to mentally connect the two states
of culture – pre-modern and modern; all city cemeteries, in his view, should turn to
countryside cemeteries – in terms of their value status and identification functions.

Moreover, the cemetery should be a tool for the final victory of humanity over death in this
Fedorov’s worldview, based on archaic tribal bonds, at the same time paradoxically con-
tradicts the very essence of an archaic society in which death is not hated, not sought to be
destroyed, but, on the contrary, is sacred. Actually, for the traditional man, death does not
exist itself – there are only different modes of being: the afterlife just has other options, but
it is also being.
However, the call to face death and not to turn away from its manifestations is very
important from a moral aspect. Perhaps, we are close to the point in the development
of our civilisation, when death once again is not a private matter, but allows a person
to find him/her own self, for being-to-death is a fundamental parameter of our presence
in the world, and only death makes our life to be possible as it is.

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1. The concept of locus is adopted from the conceptual arsenal of philology, where it is used for
reflection on the problem of artistic space. Thus, the Soviet scholar S. Neklyudov considered
loci as ‘functional fields, entering which is equivalent to the inclusion in a peculiar conflict situ-
ation’ (Neklyudov, 1966, p. 42). Locus as a specific element of the artistic space has also been
studied by Yuri Lotman (see (Lotman, 1988, pp. 251–254)). This concept seems to be pro-
ductive for understanding non-artistic phenomena as well. We define loci as closed and func-
tionally delimited places in which certain types of relationships are implemented
corresponding to the relevant key anthropological situations. Therefore, loci are those semio-
tic-laden places in a space which are associated with the displaying of a specific set of life
events (e.g. house, temple, garden, city, cemetery etc.).
2. See (Krogner-Kornalik, 2015, pp. 9–10).
3. See about it: (Bardileva, 2009, pp. 135–142).
4. It is notable that the Old Russian word for ‘coffin’ was ‘domovina’, which derives from ‘dom’, i.e.
5. About ideological transformation of the cemetery discourse in Post-Soviet Russia see (Sokolov,
6. See in more detail: (Young, 2012), (Sautkin, 2015a).
7. Some works of Fedorov can be a source of ‘cemetery pedagogics’. About cemetery pedago-
gics see (Wolf, 2011).

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

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