My father spoke about death a fair bit. He wasn’t obsessed with it but I suspect he was a little fascinated by it, just as I am. I remember him telling me that he didn’t want a fancy funeral or some swanky walnut-wood coffin with brass handles. It would be a waste of money: he was never one for airs and graces and it wasn’t like he’d be around to enjoy it anyway.
“Just wrap me up in an old burlap sack and bury me in a tomato crate,” he used to say. “Just nail two pits of plywood together and write my name on it with a ballpoint pen, that’s all I need.” My dad wasn’t an old jewish bobba, but sometimes he spoke like one.
He was clear about one thing: he didn’t want to be cremated. He may not have put on airs and graces, but after the long, undignified struggle of life, something about the thought of being scraped into a jar by some bored technician with a trowel didn’t agree with him.
I was nine or so when we had this conversation, and since then I’ve gone backwards and forwards on what I want to happen when I go. Of course just wanting something doesn’t guarantee anything. Before Vladimir Lenin died in 1924 he asked to be buried in the family plot in St Petersburg, where he could lie for eternity beside his beloved mama. Not an outlandish request, and surely it’s pretty much the least a grateful nation could have done for the father of their glorious new Russia.
This week, on a brisk early morning with light rain and a cold wind sweeping down Red Square I went to join a queue outside the Kremlin. Russians have a peculiar relationship with queuing. They’re used to queues – they expect them, it’s how they used to get their bread each day – and they do them very well, which is to say, they have techniques for doing them better than you.
The English, say, will stand all day in a queue, possibly sighing and huffing in complaint but fundamentally as placid and compliant as cows, or a capitalist middle-class. Russians prefer a more dynamic approach. Instead of queuing in bourgeois single-file, the chap behind you will come and stand beside you. Then the chap behind him will come and stand on the other side of you, as though this is a magically egalitarian queue that works laterally instead of longitudinally. Soon there are several of you standing abreast, like the front row of the Comrades marathon just before the gun goes off. Then slowly, imperceptibly, the chaps on either side start edging their way forward, just a centimeter at a time.
You as a non-Russian find yourself confounded as to how to respond. If you just ignore them and stand where you are, muttering, “Guys, what’s the rush, he’ll still be dead when we get there”, you’ll find that suddenly several Russians who were once behind you are now ahead of you, and all that remains is for them to close the you-sized gap between them, and you’re now at the back of the queue. This is undesirable to the point of being counter-revolutionary.
On the other hand, if you start creeping forward as well, keeping pace with them in some incremental low-stakes arms race, sooner or later you’ll tread upon the heels of the person in the queue ahead of you, who will turn and glare and mutter something about foreigners who don’t know how to queue properly.
It’s a dilemma. Do you maintain the moral high ground but concede the actual ground, or do you scrap it out, not giving an inch, like the gallant defenders of Stalingrad in the Great Patriotic War of 1944?
Fortunately it started raining more heavily, which gave me the excuse to open my umbrella with a flourish and a snap, causing the Russkis in my flanks to leap back in terror. Russians take the threat of an umbrella very seriously. You never know when one will have a poisoned tip.
When Lenin died Stalin refused to let him be buried in St Petersburg. New nations need their heroes – especially heroes that are safely dead. He commissioned a tomb of red marble on Red Square outside the red Kremlin walls, facing the G.U.M. department store, and ordered the fallen hero to be embalmed and permanently displayed. Lenin belongs to the people, and he should forever be available for the people to see him.
You don’t need a ticket to see Lenin, you just need to go on days when the tomb is open, and you need to queue in the drizzle and leave your camera behind and not sass the soldiers. You’re admitted in batches and pass through a remembrance garden of fir trees and tombstones and you can translate from Cyrillic the names of various beloved Soviets – Yuri Gagarin and Yuri Andropov and Josef Stalin and dozens of others whose names might still be on roads and squares but whom no one remembers any more.
You descend into the crypt and although the morning light of Red Square wasn’t bright the sudden darkness of the stairwell blinds you. There are soldiers along the way, moving you along at a constant regulated pace. And then you enter a chamber and there he is, embalmed and intact, the actual man lying there with his strangely small, slender hands and his combed hair and neat beard, his eyes closed and his skin smooth, glowing in the soft down-lighting.
There he is, the real man, the man himself, lying where he never wanted to lie, but still, astonishingly, there. I know he isn’t actually still there, it’s just his skin and his flesh and his hair and his bones, and yet inescapably, undeniably there he is. As I walked around him, as slowly as I could without being bayoneted, I thought of my dad, who was born in the same year that Lenin died and who, like Lenin, didn’t get what he wanted after he died.
Even in a tomato crate, even with a marker made of plywood and ballpoint pen, it was too expensive to bury my dad. We cremated him because that’s what we could afford, and we couldn’t really even afford that. It probably wouldn’t have surprised him. I don’t even know where his ashes are.
Times, 26 September 2018