One of my favorite places in the world is the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Spring Valley, New York, which is known as Novo Diveyevo. An Anglo, used to containing his dead in unrelenting grids of slabs of stone atop preternaturally manicured grasses, would have trouble envisioning it. For the Anglo, as Philippe Ariès has pointed out, cemeteries are frightening places that require control and taming. Hence, Anglos would be unprepared for the Slavic chaos at Novo Diveyevo, announced at first glance by the profusion and untrammeled growth of dogwood, maples, rose bushes, geraniums, wisteria, lilacs, spruces, marigolds and every other kind of plant imaginable. Like the death that is their ground soil, the plants grow everywhere, regardless of the boundaries of graves, the vehicle pathways or the buildings.
As for the graves, some are marked with simple wooden Orthodox crosses, the names long effaced by decades of weathering; some are huge marble monuments to heroes of the White army; atop one grave, one man built a small house with a bed and a chair and an embroidered rug for his extended visits to his wife (he doesn’t come any more; this is probably not neglect, I think, but the fulfillment of his obvious consummate wish, reunion). I have always loved this small edifice and its promise of eternal love beneath the weeping willow that shelters its roof, as well as the imposing neighboring grave belonging to General Bezsmertnye, as its tall granite monument proclaims, a name which means, in translation, “immortal.”
The sculpture garden below my window contained concrete statues meant for a backyard or a grave; some of the pieces there were angels with downcast eyes and extended wings, others were massive urns.
As the trees and uncut hedges grow as they please, so the graves are in lines or circles as they choose, and the wildlife goes about, oblivious of the black-frocked priests with their heavy iron crosses and the self-effacing nuns, the monashki, married to the priests. Raccoons lead their young across the small gravel driveway that serves as the entrance to Novo Diveyevo as the cars wait to park in the small places behind the church. Raccoons lead their young across the small gravel driveway that serves as the entrance to Novo Diveyevo as the cars wait to park in the small area behind the church. The church is mainly a site for funerals these days, with a dwindling congregation made smaller by every death. The current clientele of Nova Diveyevo is that greatest generation, veterans of the Second World War, and they arrive more frequently with every year of the new millennium.
Funeral masses are heavy with incense and read in Old Church Slavonic. There is crying, but little keening. Caskets are almost always open and we kiss the hands and the heads of our loved ones in parting, but feel a loss if, for some reason, we cannot. We feel comfort that we are putting our forefathers into the hands of the diligent nuns who will weed the graves and let us know if the gophers are eating holes under the plots and making them sag.
There is—and this is truly incomprehensible to the Protestant—an old age home on the premises; the monashki care for these aged. The place is free of the howling agonies of most age care facilities, where, as anyone who has ever been to one knows, the old lie screaming into the night, calling for their long-dead mothers. Here the old understand they are going to die and accept it, and are happy with the care of the meek monashki, so unlike the jaded, burnt-out nurses of clinical aseptic hospital wards, and with the physical beauty of the final resting place they have chosen.
I grew up with little fear of the dead. All my people—both sets of grandparents, and now both mother and father, other relatives—reside here and I take comfort in visiting them. When I was a child, before the cemetery grew large and woods—yes, even here—were cut down to make room for more dead, my father would take me walking by the woodland streams, showing me the small fish and salamanders in the rivulets and the mushrooms growing on the rotting carcasses of the old woodland giants. My mother would make a picnic. Camp survivors, they had learned to live, or at least make peace, with life and death both.
I said all my people were at Novo Diveyevo—not true. The most important of all, my godchild and niece (suicide? overdose?), chose to have her ashes scattered over the Long Island Sound. To me, a horror. How to visit? Where would be the lilacs and rabbits and raccoons to succor her, to succor me? Where, Lord, in that vast uncaring space they call the sea, would she be? My brilliant child, where are you? Damn you if you tell me she is in every sea breeze, in every mist, in the air I breathe. She is gone and yet I search for her as her molecules spread further and further away to the blank magnetosphere and into deeper space and finally into some accursed black hole. I have a brief with God: I demand habeus corpus.
At Novo Diveyevo, we could have talked, she and I, about this, about her death so unnaturally preceding mine. I could have bought a bench to plant next to the grave and, after many years, perhaps, we could have come to an understanding. If not understanding, then perhaps peace. But how does one come to terms with the sea? With the wind over the ocean? With ashes? With space?
I will do what I know how to do, what I have been taught. I will find a bench near that insatiable sea. I will look for the last molecules of my beloved. Maybe the gulls and terns and clams will take pity on me and guide me somehow to whatever is left of her whom I loved so.