Police had set up a vigil at the entrance to a sprawling cemetery in Tbilisi earlier this week as if they had been tipped off about an imminent zombie attack. One officer paced at the gate, smoking with his face mask tucked under his chin. His partner leaned against the gate, browsing his phone. A few more officers lay in wait in their cars. On the hill behind rose the Saburtalo Cemetery, crowded to capacity with graves and cypress trees. There was little traffic and the gray sky was about to break into a drizzle.
Two women and a teenage boy appeared from a nearby street. They strolled along the cemetery’s ivy-covered fence, slowly approaching the entrance. A woman in a gauzy, black veil strode ahead, holding the traditional paschal sweet bread in her hands. Her companion carried purple carnations wrapped in plastic film. The boy held a plastic bag with a bottle of red wine and food.
The policeman with the cigarette signaled to his companions. The two officers stepped out of the car, donning hats and facemasks. “I’m afraid you can’t go in, madam, all cemeteries are closed,” one officer said. “They announced it on TV,” the other chimed in.
The trio protested: What do you mean the cemeteries are closed? Everyone goes to the cemeteries today. It’s the day of the dead.
Every year in Georgia, cemeteries come alive on the Monday after Orthodox Easter as families gather at their loved ones’ graves to feast with the dead. Pedestrian and vehicular queues form outside graveyards in Tbilisi. Crowds meander through the labyrinths of tightly arranged graves enclosed in rectangular stone casings.
Families and friends share food and make toasts. They don’t drain their wine cups, instead pouring some wine onto the graves to share with the dead, who gaze out from black-and-white photographs etched on their tombstones. Soaked in wine, the black earth becomes covered with flowers, candles and Easter eggs, died barn red with rose madder roots and onion peels. The food left on the graves is often picked up by cemetery keepers.
But for the first time in memory, the celebration was cancelled this year as crowded graveyards threatened to be hotbeds of coronavirus transmission. The authorities banned most car traffic for the week, primarily to prevent people gathering in churches on Easter Sunday (April 19) and at the cemeteries the following day. Police were deployed to block access. Only funeral processions were allowed to enter.
Not everyone met the restrictions with understanding. The family at the entrance of Saburtalo Cemetery had a protracted exchange with the police. Alternating between pleas and admonishing, the veiled woman asked that at least she be allowed in alone to leave the cake, flowers and eggs on her late husband’s grave. When they finally strode off still clutching their goodies, exhausted police officers rolled their eyes and puffed their cheeks with deep, sympathetic sighs.
The ban on car traffic was later extended to April 28 to keep believers away from churches, where Eastertide celebrations are held throughout the week. The restrictions come amid health officials’ warnings that the dreaded peak of the COVID-19 pandemic is about to hit Georgia, which as of April 24 had just 431 confirmed cases, 114 recoveries and five deaths.
Coronavirus has profoundly changed funeral culture in Georgia. Death is a very elaborate matter here. Normally, friends, relatives and funeral professionals help with the formulaic, ceremonial process after someone passes away. The body rests in the home for four or five days to allow mourners to pay their respects. The deceased’s immediate family, known as chirisupali, or the lords of grief, normally provide broad oversight and are given time to grieve. In the age of social distancing, the bereaved have to go it solo.
Archil Grigalashvili had to put new clothes on his deceased father himself, make arrangements at the cemetery and look for gravestone materials, as there were no morticians and very few relations on hand to help him out in his small, ancestral village of Tkotsa.
“You would normally delegate all these tasks to professional services, friends and relatives, but we were far away from everything and nobody could come to the village because of the restrictions,” said Grigalashvili, who teaches economics at Tbilisi Technical University. His father taught at the same university.
The nearest funeral home was miles away. Its crew could only arrive a day later at best, as they had to get a permit to travel outside the regional center. “At the same time, we had to dress the body before it became stiff,” he said.
Grigalashvili himself had trouble traveling to the village from Tbilisi when he heard the news of his father’s passing on March 30. He does not have car. All public transportation has been suspended and intercity car traffic restricted to halt the spread of coronavirus. A friend eventually gave him a ride, but he could not take his entire family along as police only allow three people per vehicle, as per the state of emergency.
Upon arrival in the village, police told him to bury his father in three days under the emergency rules. Across the Caucasus, authorities have banned crowded solemnities and extravagant memorial dinners.
Grigalashvili, his sister and their mother, and a handful of relations hosted funeral visitations in an empty house. Only a few neighbors showed up to pay their respects and make a circle around the casket, as is custom. On the third day, the family advanced to the cemetery in a small procession.
“I wish my father had lived, of course, but if he had to die, I wish it did not happen now, when I could not even arrange a proper farewell for him,” Grigalashvili said. His main regret was being unable to make a proper grave for his father. He wanted a gravestone shaped to evoke manganese ore, since his father specialized in manganese production. But he could hardly find any stone as he ran around the village searching for supplies.
Grigalashvili’s phone was ringing off the hook, with friends and relatives calling to express their condolences. He thanked everyone, but ended his conversations with the request that has become a global mantra: “Stay home.”