Coffin culture evolves in Russia
Many are made of pine or mahogany hardwood, have a silk or satin lining, and some are encrusted with Swarowski crystals. Russian consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their tastes -- and coffins are no exception.
"We are acquiring traditions," said Yury Alampikov, general director of Saint Petersburg-based Akropol Servis, one of Russia's top coffin manufacturers.
"Under the Soviet Union we did not have them. Nor did we have much of a choice."
Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the more important achievements of capitalism in Russia, industry experts say, is that more and more people can afford not only a good life but also a good death, or at least a decent burial.
"Russians are slowly moving away from red rags," said Irina Mordvina, director of a coffin manufacturer from the small Siberian town of Iskitim, referring to the Soviet-era traditional upholstery. "They want something decent."
Manufacturers of coffins and furnishings say they don't advertise their products for ethical reasons and an annual show -- tucked away in the far corner of Moscow's famed All-Russian Exhibition Centre late last month -- was a rare opportunity for them to win publicity.
But even without much advertising they admit that business is good.
With rampant alcoholism and high death rates from traffic accidents, life expectancy is startlingly low in Russia, and authorities' attempts to contain a population decline so far have not proved successful.
"The Russian market is very interesting," enthused Bartolomeo Sandrone of Italian-based Spaf which makes hand-finished brass handles, among other products.
"The market is growing," he said at the Nekropol-2011 show, a row of dark-toned polished coffins made of premium hardwood sitting nearby.
Manufacturers now cater for every taste, with products on offer ranging from a leather-upholstered coffin for a rocker to a snow white casket sprinkled with crystals.
Some Russians have become so enamoured of Western lifestyles that they opt to be buried in US-style caskets with two-piece lids that can expose the head and torso of the deceased, a fact that makes some in Russia indignant.
"Are you not Russian?" said Anton Avdeyev, chairman of the Moscow-based Trade Union of Funeral Service Employees. "Why on earth are you climbing into a Batesville?" he said, referring to products of Batesville Casket Company, a leading US manufacturer.
For centuries, Russians had buried their dead with flair. Rituals were elaborate, funerals lavish and coffins made of solid timber, mostly oak. But then history intervened.
In 1723, he issued a decree banning coffins made of solid oak. A ban on solid pinewood soon followed. The Russian tsar was building a naval fleet and wanted Russians to switch to plank coffins to save on precious timber.
"Nowhere in the world was a fleet built so fast. It was built on the Russian bones -- and at the expense of coffins," said Avdeyev.
Expensive funerals became de rigueur among moneyed Russians under the rule of Catherine the Great. Funeral rituals changed again with the 1917 arrival of Soviets who pledged that everyone would become equal.
The early decades of Soviet rule -- when Soviet citizens endured civil war, Stalin's murderous campaign of collectivisation and the purges -- caused such high death rates that coffins once again became simple affairs.
They were cobbled together from fir, birch or pine boards and painted red, dark blue or black. Red satin upholstery became popular in the 70s.
Eric Adjetey Anang, manager of a carpentry workshop from Accra, knows from experience, that Russians are sticklers for tradition.
A prominent artist in his native Ghana known for its tradition of elaborately-shaped coffins, Anang made two coffins for Russia at the request of Novosibirsk Museum of World Funeral Art.
One was a pink-coloured fish-shaped coffin in line with Ghanaian traditions, the other one -- in the shape of a vodka bottle to draw attention to widespread alcohol abuse in Russia.
"Design coffins can hardly be popular among common people because they are not traditional and do not symbolise Russian culture," Anang said by email through his spokesman, expressing hope however that funeral homes, museums or simply eccentrics could be among his potential clients.
But some Russian manufacturers met his work with sheer incomprehension.
"How does this agree with the Russian soul?" said Mordvina. "I don't know anyone who would like to be buried in a fish or a violin. This is no laughing matter. A true Russian coffin should be made of solid wood."
Despite evolving tastes and growing incomes, mid-range and luxury solid timber options that start from around $300 (217 euros) are still out of bounds for many Russians.
According to estimates from the Trade Union of Funeral Service Employees, around 80 to 85 percent of all coffins sold in the country are simple funeral boxes made of boards rather than solid wood.
That will change sooner or later, said Alampikov whose company last year sold an estimated 12,000-14,000 caskets ranging between 6,000 rubles ($200) to 80,000 rubles ($2,650)
"Coffins covered with fabric do not have a future," he said. "Man prefers natural products."