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Grisly Graveyard Scene Mirrors Money Woes : Russia: Unburied corpses litter a cemetery. More are abandoned by relatives too poor to pay for interment.

March 17, 1994|MATT BIVENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In a gruesome scene worthy of Dostoevsky, dozens of corpses have been found in smashed pine coffins apparently heaved off the back of a truck into a cemetery here.

The corpses, wrapped in plastic bags, were first noticed early Tuesday at Yuzhny Cemetery, a vast wasteland drowning in mud and frozen snow and littered with broken-down machinery, scrap wood and old tires. One pile contained 31 coffins--many with arms, legs and heads sticking out. Crows picked at the body bags and at exposed flesh.

"I've never seen anything like this," said a cemetery worker who identified himself only as Oleg. He and two colleagues were opening coffins, searching for a corpse with toe-tag No. 41: "We don't know who wants it, whether it's a relative or the police, but they're waiting out front."

The workmen eventually found the body and dragged it away on a sled.

After a day of confusion, Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak explained Wednesday that the scattered corpses resulted from a disagreement between cemetery workers and a city morgue delivery crew.

The cemetery, he said, had refused to accept the corpses from the morgue because the city government had not yet paid to bury them, whereupon the delivery men responded by driving through the cemetery heaving coffins over the tailgate.

The cemetery's director, contacted by phone for comment, screamed "Provocateur!" and hung up.

The tale lends a macabre twist to Russia's hard times.

The country's second-largest city, it turns out, has been stuck with too many bodies to bury.

Officials estimate that as many as three of four people who die here are abandoned in morgues by their families.

About 200 to 250 people die in St. Petersburg every day, said Alexander Avdeyev, head of a funeral service company.

"About 100 of them are tramps, refugees or criminals nobody wants to take care of," he said. "Moreover, many people now cannot afford to bury their relatives because it's too expensive."

Vera Tkacheva, head of the city's Department of Communal Hygiene, said morgues and crematories throughout St. Petersburg are filled.

In the last month, she said, many have refused to accept more bodies.

The central morgue, in better condition than the dozens of smaller morgues attached to city hospitals, held 1,283 corpses Wednesday--at least 400 more than its capacity.

In refrigerated rooms, bodies were stacked in careless heaps on tables and floors. In 1990, the central morgue handled 11,000 corpses. Last year, it handled 20,000.

Valery Andreyev, head of the Forensic Medical Expert Service, which runs the morgue, said that accidents and suicides have doubled in that time, while murders have quadrupled.

As in the 19th-Century days of Fyodor M. Dostoevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment," when the antihero Raskolnikov murders an elderly woman with an ax, "they kill each other, but not with guns," Andreyev said. "People use knives, hatchets, broken glass."

Meanwhile, burial costs have skyrocketed, and the high inflation of the last two years has wiped out many people's savings.

The simplest funeral in St. Petersburg costs 400,000 rubles, or $233, almost three times the average monthly salary.

Russia's most beloved poet, Alexander S. Pushkin, wrote in the 19th Century that "the heart finds nourishment . . . in the love for a father's graveside."

That sentiment is vanishing today.

"It's wild," Andreyev said. "The level of morality in this country has fallen so greatly. If before we would occasionally meet a son or daughter who refused to bury their parent, today we for the first time are regularly seeing parents who refuse to bury their own young children.

"People could bury their parents themselves, in a field or near their dacha. They could find a way," Andreyev added. But "last week, I had a guy tell me he couldn't bury his father because he had just bought a new car and had no money left. I suggested he sell the car, but he laughed."

Ever since the smashed-up coffins were shown on television Tuesday, St. Petersburg has been in an uproar.

Rumors spread that the coffins were among those that had already been buried and that troublemakers had dug them up.

People who had buried loved ones came to the cemetery to check grave sites. By evening Tuesday, cemetery workers had buried all the corpses in a shallow mass grave.

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