Ukraine’s Death Workers: ‘If you take it all to heart, you’ll go crazy’


LVIV, Ukraine — For many Ukrainians faced with the Russian invasion, there is hope that the daily battles can be won: a soldier can beat back his enemies. A rescuer can miraculously pull a survivor out of the rubble. A doctor can save a life.

But in one work, also deeply affected by this war, sorrow seems to be the only sure end: dealing with the dead.

From gravediggers to undertakers, undertakers to coroners, these workers bear deep psychological war wounds—and have few others who can identify with them.

“Nowadays I feel numb,” said Antoniy, a mortuary worker in Lviv, Ukraine. “Even if someone tells me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh. My emotions are too numb.”

Lviv, a city in the relatively safe western Ukraine, is physically largely untouched by the war, yet death reaches here anyway. Local residents bury the bodies of soldiers killed on battlefields further east. Families fleeing their hometown, now occupied by Russian troops, have to bury their loved ones who died far from home here.

Along with other workers in this field, Antoniy asked to be identified by his first name only, because while the Ukrainians showed deep respect for those killed in the war, the workers said there was a residual stigma around those who lived with the dead. To hang out. He joined the army when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and remains in Ukraine’s Voluntary Forces.

But when Russia launched its large-scale invasion in February, he was told to stay home: his job was considered critical infrastructure. He often finds that soldiers in the morgue cannot bring themselves to look at their fallen comrades.

“We have to stay here and do this job because no one else can,” he said.

Ukraine and Russia have kept their numbers of victims closely guarded secrets, mostly making statements, which were impossible to verify, about the losses of the other side. A senior adviser to the Ukrainian president recently estimated that about 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers died every day, compared to just a few weeks earlier, when President Volodymyr Zelensky said 60 to 100 were killed every day.

The rising numbers reflect how the frontline has shifted since Ukraine expelled Russian troops from the capital Kiev early in the war. The fighting has moved east, with entrenched fighters pitted against relentless artillery attacks, in which Moscow appears to have a lead.

“We used to do one or two funerals a month. Now we are short on cash,” said Mikhailo, a gravedigger who buries many of the dead as Antoniy prepares for burial. “Every day there is a funeral, sometimes several at once. And they are all so young.”

Antoniy, although he has a hard exterior, handles the bodies with care. He wraps mutilated legs in plastic, dabs powder on bruised faces. He carefully dresses the soldiers in uniforms drawn from a pile of donations – or sometimes a special suit chosen by loved ones.

“They come here in bad shape, covered in dirt, blood and open wounds,” he said. “We clean them, sew them back together and make sure they look good.”

Borys Ribun, who runs the morgue, said the work “feels much more psychologically complicated” than it did before the war.

The dead who come in are young people, he said, and they bear horrific wounds.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to bring the parts of the body together. There could be some really serious damage,” he said, holding back his tears. “But we’re trying. We are doing what we can so that their families can say goodbye to them.”

Antoniy has long since become accustomed to the dead bodies, regardless of their condition – even if he can only return a person’s remains to their families in a plastic bag.

But his hands tremble as he describes having to see the relatives. One morning, he quietly backed away when a woman entered the morgue to see her son’s body. She whimpered, inconsolably, and then fainted on the floor.

“You can get used to almost anything, you can get used to almost any kind of work,” said Antoniy. “But it’s impossible for me to get used to the emotions of these people who come here to see their loved ones.”

Outside Lychakiv Cemetery, Mikhailo and his colleagues begin their work at dawn, as the city shakes awake. They dig two meters deep, wipe their eyebrows, smoke a necklace and joke when they stop to rest.

“You have to keep on joking – you have to. If you take it all to heart, you will go crazy,” said Mikhailo.

Dating back to 1786, Lviv’s historic cemetery is full of local notables and contains a memorial to Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis. Now the cemetery has no room for the number of bodies that are brought in. There are about 50 fresh graves on a lawn outside the cemetery walls.

The new plot is shaded by several stone crosses, plaques of which commemorate another generation of Ukrainian fighters: those who fought against the Soviet Union during and after World War II. The bones of these men were unearthed in a mass grave found in the early 1990s, when Mikhailo began his job as a gravedigger. Reburying them was one of his first tasks.

In those early days of Ukraine’s independence, it was difficult to find work with a steady salary. Mikhailo took a job as a gravedigger partly because the money, although it paid little, came on time.

“At first I didn’t tell anyone I worked in the cemetery,” he said. “I was ashamed.”

Wiping away tears, he said he still didn’t feel like doing his job: “There’s not much to be proud of with this job.”

Due to the growing need to manage the funerals, the Lviv government has appointed an official from the city council to manage the daily funerals. A state-backed company, Municipal Ritual Service, covers most of the costs and provides coffins and flowers for soldiers killed in combat.

“Each of their stories is unique. They should be written about — all of them,” said Yelyzaveta, 29, who had been with the company for just six months when the war started.

On top of many graves, families leave tokens in memory of who their loved ones were in life: a painter’s putty scraper. A teen’s video game console. A medallion carved in a writer’s quill pen. A favorite candy bar.

Some graves have carefully planted flower beds. Almost all have candles, which flicker every night as darkness falls.

Back at the morgue, Antoniy said the only time he and his colleagues chose not to work on a body was when a fallen soldier had been a friend. Then, he said, he finds himself struggling with the same disbelief he often sees in the eyes of mourners.

Working here has taught him not to find morgues or funerals scary, he said. But it hasn’t lessened his fear of dying.

“There is not a single person who is not afraid of death,” said his colleague Mikhailo. “I buried everyone from doctors to scientists. In the end, death takes us all.”

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