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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Running Short of Cemetery Spots

MTThe lack of space is clear from the crowding in the Vagankovskoye Cemetery.
The April deaths of former President Boris Yeltsin and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich brought a period of national reflection, as well as awareness of a new challenge facing Moscow: where the remains of dignitaries, luminaries and common folk alike should be interred.

While overcrowding is a common complaint among Moscow's living, the situation is hardly better six feet under: At the current rate, burial space within the city limits could run out within seven years.

The city currently has only 100 hectares of available burial space in its 72 cemeteries and is using 10 to 15 hectares per year for burials, according to data from City Hall's consumer market and services department.

Last year alone, Moscow registered 127,000 deaths, and Muscovites, proud of their status as natives of the center of the Russian world, may have to begin seeking their final resting place in the suburbs.

With very few possibilities to expand burial space within the city limits, city authorities have already begun spending some 1.5 billion rubles ($59 million) on land for new cemeteries in the Moscow region, said Svetlana Ozkan, a spokeswoman for Ritual, the monopoly owner of Moscow's cemeteries.

And space is tight no matter how famous you are.

Yeltsin and Rostropovich were buried in the historic Novodevichye Cemetery, the resting place of the country's most famous writers, poets, politicians and public figures and considered the premier cemetery in the capital.

"Rostropovich's grave was probably the last one in Novodevichye Cemetery," said Vladimir Kozhin, the head of the Presidential Property Department.

Regardless of one's fame, there are no more spots for graves -- or for a columbarium -- in this peaceful area, which includes a spectacular 16th-century convent set near the Moscow River. More than 27,000 individuals are buried at Novodevichye, among them Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Nikita Khrushchev and Anton Chekhov.

Another prestigious cemetery, Vagankovskoye, near the Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro station, is renowned for its famous graves and rich history but is also overfilled. City Hall permission is required to obtain a spot in Vagankovskoye, where bard and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, among other luminaries, is interred, Ozkan said.

During the Soviet era, individuals of note were buried next to the Kremlin wall, but burials in Red Square were banned in 1991. The last coffin lowered into the ground there was Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko's in 1985. The last urn interred in the Kremlin wall was Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov's in 1984.

The bucolic Troyekurovskoye Cemetery in western Moscow, which is affiliated with Novodevichye, remains one possibility within the city limits for politicians and celebrities. But for mere mortals, the situation is not so hopeful.

By law, the city must provide a burial space to all citizens for free. But now, if such space is requested, it will likely be located outside the city limits, Ozkan said.

People who insist on burying a loved one in Moscow need to contact the administration of the desired cemetery directly to discuss the possibility of obtaining a plot.

"Nobody will offer you a plot for free in Moscow unless you bury a very important or famous person or if you already have a family place in the cemetery," said a woman who answered the telephone at Ritual's information center.

A handpicked spot at a less prestigious cemetery -- such as the Mitinskoye cemetery, northwest of Moscow -- could cost around 50,000 rubles ($2,000), while a spot at the Miusskoye cemetery in northeast Moscow could go for around 560,000 rubles ($22,000), she said.

There are also opportunities to purchase used plots where the relatives of some enterprising folks were buried long ago.

One woman who posted her phone number on the Internet under the name Natalya said she was ready to sell a plot at the Vostryakovskoye cemetery for $45,000. The cemetery, located in southwest Moscow, is the resting place of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov.

At the same time, there is no information about ownership for 20 percent of all graves in the country, according to a State Duma report released in March.

There have been reports that the ambiguous ownership of gravesites has led to abuse from cemetery employees who try to resell the spaces.

A Channel One television documentary broadcast in June 2006 featured a man in the Leningrad region town of Gatchina who said he visited his wife's grave in a local cemetery only to find a new grave with a different headstone embossed with a name that was not his deceased wife's.

At around 2,500 rubles ($100), cremation remains a cheaper option and demands less of the city's precious burial space, but the cost here is set to jump to 3,800 rubles Wednesday.

About 50 percent of Muscovites prefer to cremate the remains of their relatives, Vladimir Malyshkov, head of the city's consumer market and services department, told a news conference in April.

Muscovites should "pay special attention to cremation," Malyshkov said, Interfax reported.

But Moscow's three crematoriums might not be able to cover demand. A woman who answered the telephone at Nikolo-Arkhangelsky, the largest crematorium in the country and Europe, said it cremates 100 to 120 bodies each day. The crematorium, located in the Moscow region town of Balashikha, is one of only 13 legal crematoriums in all of Russia, according to the Duma report.

With so few crematoriums nationwide, only 7 to 8 percent of the 2 million people who die each year in Russia are cremated, and cities have no money allocated for building crematoriums, the report said.

By comparison, the United States cremated 27 percent of their dead in 2002, according to Washington Profile, a Russian-language news agency based in Washington.

Another possible reason for the low percentage of cremations may be the Russian Orthodox Church's denouncement of the burning of the dead as a heathen custom.

Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin said cremation was permitted only as a last resort, when people have no money for traditional burials.