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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Updating the Death Business

ReutersAlexander Korzukhin gesturing in front of the Italian coffins he sells to customers at his funeral parlor in Almaty.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The row of Italian coffins in a disused cafe reflect Alexander Korzukhin's dream to make death more civilized in Kazakhstan.

An entrepreneurial funeral director, he says he wants to do to the business of death what others have done to consumer goods and shopping.

To that end he organized an exhibition of wooden Italian coffins in the country's biggest city, Almaty. As the founder of the Kazakhstan Association of Funeral Directors, Korzukhin says he wants the business to clean up its act, partly through greater regulation.

Korzukhin became an undertaker in 1984 when death, like most aspects of Soviet life, was a state monopoly. He worked for the euphemistically named Special Combine for Consumer Services, which organized funerals.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the combine. Its big hearses, which allowed mourners to travel with the body, were sold off, some becoming buses. Unregulated private funeral parlors sprang up to fill the vacuum.

"They didn't know how to embalm, so they would cut the organs out of the body and tell the relatives to flush them down the toilet or put them in a plastic bag and throw them away," Korzukhin said.

"Can you imagine the organs of your relatives being thrown in the garbage? This is criminal."

He said such practices, though hard to prove, still existed, and involved rogue morticians working with corrupt police and ambulance service officials who do everything as cheaply as possible to extract the biggest profit possible.

Korzukhin and his association are lobbying for the introduction of licenses for funeral parlors and strict rules on hygiene.

For his own business, he is pinning his hopes on becoming a distributor of the Italian coffins, which are modestly priced at 300 to 600 euros ($385 to $775) to attract the nascent middle class.

Selling coffins in a largely Muslim country is not necessarily a problem, as Kazakh Muslims, who are buried without a coffin, often want one to be carried to the cemetery in one.

"We do get asked by some Muslims if we rent out coffins," said Korzukhin, an ethnic Russian wearing sunglasses and a shiny blue pinstripe suit. "We do not."

Another project is to bring in Western-style hearses with uniformed drivers, replacing the decrepit Soviet ones, which look like buses and can typically be seen being driven by men wearing dirty overalls.

"My goal is to raise the culture of funerals," Korzukhin said. "Any civilization is judged by how it treats its dead."