Translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
What does going to the cemetery once a year and taking stock of the old and new tombstones have to do with Christianity?
The whole business has a hint of paganism about it. Nobody goes to church because the old church was knocked down, and there’s no one around to build a new one. So, they go to the cemetery instead. Easter’s been reduced to making the rounds of the local cemeteries to visit their dead. There are getting to be more and more of them, so visiting them takes more and more time, but nobody even thinks about forsaking this ritual. Rituals enthrall; rituals unify. The more time you spend at the cemetery, the more familiar faces appear carved into the tombstones. It seems like the life you once knew is gradually settling here, among the blue-painted metal crosses and stone tiles.
First, the parents of your parents wind up here, then the parents of your peers, then your peers, gradually, inescapably. You come by and visit, not to honor people, but to recognize them, remember what they look like. There’s my math teacher, and there’s a distant relative; he’d always let me tag along with him when we were kids. My neighbor, just a few years older than me, is right over there. He died a long time ago, from all his drinking. Coming here once a year, checking up on them, noting the appearance of new grave markers, and watching the grass smother the old ones—what does any of it have to do with Christianity? Nothing at all.
What is nostalgia grounded in? Our trepidation in the face of the future. Our disgust for the here and now. Over there is where all the best things happened—in the distant past, many years ago. Everyone was happy; well, they were healthy, at least. Everyone was still alive—what else do you need to be happy? You didn’t have to worry about your parents. You could fight with them all you wanted, because you had the whole rest of your life to make up. Time was something you could waste, squander, kill. There was just so much of it; it never occurred to you to be frugal. Actually, you wanted it to pass as quickly as possible, so you could go out into the real world as quickly as possible, a world baiting you with a ton of lovely surprises, twists and turns, so all you had time for was soaking them all up and growing up, soaking it up and growing up.
Well, everyone’s all grown up. Just try to soak anything up now. The world’s like the coastline—it’s constantly deforming and receding under the pressure of the water, eroded by the waves. Huge chunks of land you’ve long since settled on sink to the bottom of the ocean and disappear forever, never to return. You have to accept the world the way it is, vulnerable and ephemeral. You have to sit back and watch the landmasses that you took such pains to make your own, the countries you once studied and developed an affinity for, disappear, engulfed by the ocean. You have to sit back and watch, just deal with the fact that the tide will keep coming, licking up more and more segments of your personal reality, as you try to keep loving the world around you, equivocal, yet wonderful. Is it hard? Sure it is. But there’s nothing you can do about it.
Rituals mean a lot, so everyone comes to the cemetery every Easter, only to forget about the dead for another year, only to live the lives of the living for another year, take care of the living, and continue moving down the endless, amazing tracks of life. Death’s always somewhere nearby, so make sure you do what you think is necessary, live your own life, and think about how everything will work out in the end, about how everything will work out before death takes you by the hand. Let the dead clear out; our children take their place, and we have to teach them the most important thing—to remember the dead and visit them, at least once a year. The world’s changing; it’s crumbling in your hands, so if you can teach them anything at all, try to teach them to love the things that surround them.
He sits at the table. He and his wife made the rounds of the local cemeteries; they made it to everyone’s graves and drank to their memories with everyone. He’s a year older than me. He has a successful business, children, and a skeptical outlook on life—pretty standard. We haven’t seen each other for about twenty years. He starts telling me about our mutual friends, teachers, elders, those who’re no longer with us, those who’ve departed, but keeps losing his train of thought and going back to his kids—they won’t do their homework, but you’ve gotta do your homework. They don’t listen to their parents, but you’ve gotta listen to your parents. I like that he’s talking about his kids. I like that he’s constantly thinking about them. I like that he stuck around here—in the town where his parents are buried—to raise his kids, hoping they’ll stick by him too. There’s enough room for everyone. There’s enough work to go around—and memories, too.
This is a translation of a brief reflective essay on the cemeteries of Ukraine and the locals’ unique relationship to them, shaped by their post-communist reality. The traditional role of religion in their society has been displaced, yet they continue to use the trappings of Orthodox funerary rituals for the sake of the sense of permanence and community they provide.
Serhiy Zhadan is a bestselling and critically-acclaimed contemporary Ukrainian author, poet, musician, charity worker, and political activist whose work has been translated into numerous languages. An English translation of his short story “Keep Running, Never Stop” has appeared in Two Lines, and two of his novels are also available in English, Depeche Mode (Glagoslav) and Voroshilovgrad (Deep Vellum). His well-loved work of prose and poetry, Mesopotamia, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.
Zhadan has provided written permission for this translation to be published.