Funeral Reform and the Materiality of Death in the Russian Civil War
Based on documents produced by various Soviet institutions in Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, and Yaroslavl’ in 1917–1922, this paper looks at the transformations of the Soviet funeral industry during the Civil War. After the October Revolution, a series of decrees proclaimed the secularization of funeral practices and attempted to purify them of monetary relations and hierarchy. The funeral ranks, or razryady, were eliminated, and Soviet institutions were obliged to provide equal services for all citizens regardless of their social background. This initiative was part of a larger project of creating a new man with new values by changing everyday practices. Due to administrative difficulties caused by the regime change and wartime challenges, the implementation of the funeral reform was fraught with perturbations at state, local, and family level. In Moscow, these problems led to the fullfledged “funeral crisis” of 1919, when the rise in mortality, serious shortages in supplies, and bureaucratic prevarications resulted in dead bodies being left unburied for prolonged periods of time. In the smaller towns of Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Yaroslavl’, the crisis was less intense, and the funeral industry, while being transformed in accordance with the decrees, could still cope with popular demands. Several factors might explain this difference, including town size and the less rigid attitude of the provincial authorities to the implementation of funeral innovations. The ambitious funeral reform was not entirely successful: this paper argues that the attempts to change this death-related industry did not concern the fundamental norms of dealing with the dead, namely the idea shared by both the Soviet officials and the population that a dead body deserves personal space, privacy, and respect.
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