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'Bring Your Corpse': Russia To Investigate Self-Service Morgues

After closing hours, dealing with the dead is often a self-service business in Russia's Far East.
After closing hours, dealing with the dead is often a self-service business in Russia's Far East.

In Russia's Far East, dead bodies travel by night in private cars.

They bump along on backseats over potholed roads, transported by relatives who are greeted at the local morgue with a handwritten sign on a gray steel door.

"Bring your corpse, turn on the refrigerator," it reads. "Press the top button behind the fridge to the left, and wait till it beeps."

After closing hours, dealing with the dead is often a self-service business in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.

That's the grim picture painted in a recent TV report that has caused a public uproar in the Russian region bordering China.

The report, which aired last week on Bira TV, a local affiliate of the state broadcaster Rossia, has prompted the local prosecutor's office to mount an investigation into the local burial industry and pledge a raft of changes.

Russian law mandates that dead bodies be transported to morgues in "specialized transport equipped with stretchers, designated body sacks and disinfectant," the prosecutor's office said in a statement on March 1. It promised to issue regular updates on the progress of its investigation.

But locals, who say the state does not provide adequate services for delivering the dead and that police and ambulance workers refuse to transport them, say the practice of self-service morgues is widespread.

A 'Mafia' Business

The Bira report illustrates the latest in a spate of scandals that has exposed the nature of Russia's notorious burial industry, which has long been under the spotlight amid allegations of corruption, turf wars, and general dysfunctionality.

On February 21, Samara resident Anna Plotnikova made the headlines after she placed an open casket with the body of her ex-husband, Valery, before the regional administration building in the Volga-region city. She had tried for two weeks to bury him after learning of his death.

"I called up all the hospitals and was finally told that Valery had passed away, and that his body is in Samara." she told RFE/RL's Russian Service at the time. "And no one is planning to bury him."

Plotnikova was unable to come up with the 50,000 rubles ($760) quoted by one funeral agency, and she alleged that masked men intervened when she tried to bury the body with the help of local businessman Aleksei Vorobyov, who posted a video of the incident online. In the end, local authorities denounced Plotnikova's stunt as a provocation, but arranged her ex-husband's burial outside city limits.

"We must fight this somehow, this corruption, this mafia," Vorobyov told journalists as he stood outside the regional administration alongside Plotnikova on February 21. "I just don't know what else to call them." He alleged that the masked men were employees of the municipal burial service, out to protect the company's business monopoly in the region.

The Way It Has Always Been

In the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, news that people are driving their dead relatives to self-service morgues came as no shock. When Bira's video report was posted to Instagram last week, it received thousands of views and provoked a wave of angry comments.

"It's the same in every region of the EAO," read one, using a common abbreviation for the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. "On the other hand, we have intercontinental missiles, submarines and stability," wrote another, in an apparent reference to the incendiary rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin in recent months.

Some recounted seeing limbs protruding from open car trunks en route to the morgue at night. Others suggested people were themselves to blame for making the practice widespread. "If you want to save money, then deliver the corpse yourself," one commenter wrote. "It's been like that always."

The five-minute report focuses on the small town of Leninskoye, south of regional capital, Birobidzhan. In it, a local man identified only as Vladimir opens up the back of his car and shows reporters how he folded down the backseats to lay his aunt's body over them.

"I drive my family and young child in this car. And now in this car I have to transport my aunt's body," he said.

A man identified as Vladimir shows Bira TV reporters how he folded down the backseats of his car so he could transport his aunt's dead body to the morgue.
A man identified as Vladimir shows Bira TV reporters how he folded down the backseats of his car so he could transport his aunt's dead body to the morgue.

Alyona, another Leninskoye resident, was left in the lurch after her mother died in the dead of night. The police and medics came to fill out documents, she told Bira, and left her with a business card of the local burial service, which had been closed since early evening.

Anyona said she drove the body to the morgue herself, where she was given keys to the refrigerators. Vitaly, the man who oversees the morgue, told Bira that relatives regularly arrived with bodies to dispose of, and he never bothered to check their identity.

"I have a stretcher and a refrigerator. During the day there are people working here. At night people leave [the body] in the fridge till morning," he said.

Only one burial service, Lors, operates in the town of Leninskoye, according to the Bira report. It charges upward of 1,200 rubles ($18) to deliver a body to the morgue, with a 40-ruble charge for each extra kilometer. It closes around 8 p.m. each day.

"We don't offer a service where we sit around and wait. And there's no need for that either," Lors representative Marina Yurkovlyanets told Bira.

In parts of Russia, the involvement of local authorities has apparently brought positive changes to the funeral business. In Bashkiria, the regional prosecutor's office announced on March 5 that a free burial service had been created in one of the local municipalities following a court intervention.

According to a statement posted to the prosecutor's website, local authorities are legally required to create a municipal service that offers free burials and funerals to the deceased.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.