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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death Calls on New City Hotline




What do you do if you find a body in your staircase or your loved one drops down dead in your bathroom? Where do you go if your babushka keels over in the metro or your treasured cat is run over by a truck?


You phone 310-2-310.


There's an emergency service for the police, the fire service and the sick but up until recently there's never been anything for the dead.


Now the graveyard business has set things straight with a new hotline f funded by tombstone engravers, coffin makers and cafes and restaurants specializing in wakes f that tells you everything you need to know about dying in Russia.


"Up until August there was no place where you could go for help if somebody died," said Gleb Smolyaninov, director of the free service.


Six operators during the day and three at night take an average 400 calls every 24 hours on questions ranging from "How can I bury my mother for free?" to "Why has butter gone up by five rubles?" from confused old grandmothers.


The service, which Smolyaninov thinks is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, came about because of the sheer difficulty of dying in Russia. Not that cashing your chips is particularly hard f 350 people die every day in Moscow and 10,000 a month according to official statistics.


It's what comes after you have breathed your last that is tricky. The dead, and the grieving relatives, face a bureaucratic minefield where it's very easy to do the wrong thing.


Depending on the circumstances in which the dearly departed expired, you should first call either the police, emergency services or a doctor. Calling one before the other can lead to a nightmare of red tape." There's no such thing as a universal answer," Smolyaninov said. "It depends on what time it occurred, in which circumstances ? It's all important. Was he under observation from the clinic, was he not, it all depends on the smallest details."


For example, a simple mistake many people make is to send the body to the morgue without calling the doctor out to sign the death certificate.


"The doctor at the clinic can refuse to sign a death certificate. That's his right because he has to come and be convinced that the person is dead but you've already sent the body to the morgue," Smolyaninov said. "He won't sign the death certificate and you can't bury the body."


And if you do happen to die in Moscow, remember your passport or otherwise "you'll go like a tramp," said one operator manning the hotline.


Operators have no time limit on calls and have spent hours soothing people. In the first week operators on one shift took turns for over 40 minutes to calm down one man who had threatened to kill himself.


Telephone calls completely unrelated to death are common, from harmless pranks to one man who rings up everyday and says he's going to throw himself from the window.


"He's like a relative now," Smolyaninov said.


Apart from inquiries about the procedures to follow when death knocks at your door, the operators also field questions on where to get the cheapest tombstone, funeral, and post-burial repast.


Most important, at a time of financial crisis when people are increasingly worried about getting the cheapest possible burial, the operators are well-versed in the rules and regulations that govern who qualifies for a government-subsidized funeral.


Every day they hear newly grief-stricken relatives cry on their phones. Sometimes they are the first person members of the public turn to when a death occurs.


"At first it was difficult," said Svetlana Kazakova, a graduate who used to work in a supermarket before joining the hotline. "It's not our aim to cry with them but to help them."


Despite the occasional moment when she dwells on callers' grief on the way home from the office, Kazakova doesn't allow her maudlin line of work get her down. "When I leave this room I leave it all behind," she said.