Ukraine, grappling with war casualties, adds new veneer to military funerals

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Yaroslava Sushko holds a photo of her son, Serhii V. Sushko, during the funeral of 27 Ukrainian servicemen who died fighting the Russians, in Dnipro, Ukraine, June 3.
Yaroslava Sushko holds a photo of her son, Serhii V. Sushko, during the funeral of 27 Ukrainian servicemen who died fighting the Russians, in Dnipro, Ukraine, June 3. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Mourners arrived well before the start of the military funeral, entire families crowding around a single coffin, side by side on a warm sunny morning with other families and coffins.

Two rows of soldiers, possibly 100 in all, stood at attention as the Reverend Dmitro Povorotny and several other Ukrainian Orthodox priests entered the small cemetery, signaling that mourners should move away from the coffins so that the ceremony can begin.

But a woman, overwhelmed with grief, could not. She sat on a bench crying as relatives comforted her. When a military band started playing the national anthem of Ukraine, she cried louder.

“Glory to Ukraine,” shouted an officer.

“Glory to the heroes,” replied the mourners.

To visit Krasnopilske Cemetery during military burials is to experience the brutal scale of the war between Ukraine and Russia and the terrible intimacy of the loss of a family. Twenty-seven soldiers were buried last Friday. Of these, 12 were buried as unknown in a military section that is growing almost day by day.

For Povorotny, the small cemetery on the outskirts of Dnipro bears witness to the sacrifice its people have paid in blood since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24. In just three months, the cemetery’s military section added 293 graves, up from 175 in the previous eight years. since war broke out with Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region in 2014.

“You can see how the war has changed. And this is just one cemetery, one of thousands of cemeteries in Ukraine,” said Povorotny, a military chaplain and archpriest of the Orthodox Church diocese of the Dnipropetrovsk region in Ukraine.

Pivorotny has carried out about 10 mass burials at the cemetery since the start of the war, he said in an interview after Friday’s ceremony. Each week, he also organizes one or two individual funerals. He estimated that more than 700 servicemen were killed in the Dnepropetrovsk region alone.

But when he looks at the faces of the mourners, he says, he is confident he can see their faith in the final victory, despite their loss and pain.

“Putin called it a special operation. Before that, they called it a civil war,” Pivorotny said, holding one hand to the wooden cross hanging from his neck. “For us, it’s a real war of independence.”

Funerals that occur daily around Ukraine are also taking place with new protocols that have been rewritten to reflect Western customs, such as those followed by the United States, and unique Ukrainian traditions, instead of those inherited from Russia and the Soviet Union.

And they come as the nation discusses creating a new national cemetery in Kyiv that would serve Ukraine like Arlington National Cemetery served the United States. Volodymyr Vyatrovich, a member of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, and former head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance, said in a Telegram post last month that the parliament had agreed to establish a national cemetery somewhere in Kyiv or in its surroundings.

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To develop new military burial practices, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance has studied the history of the country’s burial rites, from the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic in the early 20th century to the burial practices of the Cossacks, the bands of warriors who roamed the Ukrainian steppes. hundreds of years ago. The institute also analyzed modern military burial rituals from Belgium, Israel, Poland, Turkey and the United States and visited American military cemeteries.

Their work culminated in a 2019 video from the Department of Veterans Affairs that shows in detail how a military funeral should be conducted. Some of the rituals would be familiar to anyone who has attended a funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, including a new practice of draping the casket with the Ukrainian flag before folding it and presenting it to the family. The new protocols also state that up to six soldiers can fire three rounds in salute.

At Friday’s services, some of the newer rituals were on display, such as the folding of the Ukrainian flag – although perhaps with less precision than might be found where the custom has been practiced for generations.

The 27 coffins – each draped in a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag – were arranged before the ceremony in three neat rows with just enough room to walk between them. A wooden cross sat on each, with a sign bearing the soldier’s name in ornate script. And on the coffins containing unidentified remains, the sign read: “Here lies an unknown soldier who will be remembered forever.”

Many mourners were dressed in black, including several older women wearing headscarves, but others wore T-shirts and shorts. Many were in uniform, including a young soldier whose military green T-shirt was neatly folded and pinned to the stump of his missing right arm. Another mourner rested her cheek on a coffin, stroking the polished wood with his hand amid a silence so deep you could hear the faint fluttering of the flags.

“When I look at flags, it’s like looking at the souls of angels – and there are a lot of them, you know?” said Tetyana Kaikova, 34, who attended the funeral of her cousin, Serhii V. Sushko, with family members from across the country on Friday. His tank was destroyed on his birthday, May 11, in fighting near the front lines in the Donbass.

Although he was pulled from the wreckage, he suffered severe burns and died three days later in a hospital in Dnipro. Sushko, who lived in Kherson and served in a tank crew of the 57th Motorized Brigade, was 49 years old.

When her cousin wasn’t fishing, Kaikova said, he was often in the kitchen making a delicious pot of borscht. Kaikova said she hadn’t seen him in about a year, but they often talked on the phone about meeting at his dacha, or country retreat, for a barbecue.

“He was always, always smiling,” said Kaikova, who works at an international trade company.

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Sushko’s former and future wife, Angela Pavluk, was also there to rest him. After 18 years of amicable divorce, she and Sushko planned to remarry.

Sushko was proudly self-sufficient, self-effacing and patriotic, she said. A firefighter and paramedic, he refused to use a government pass that allowed him free public transport and enlisted in the army shortly after the outbreak of war with Moscow-backed separatists in 2014. He didn’t even bother to tell anyone about two soldiers. congratulations he had received since February.

“He wasn’t afraid of anything. He went there from day one,” Pavluk said.

Getting remarried was a decision that came from keeping in touch all these years and sharing the lives of their three children and a granddaughter, Pavluk said.

“He was a very good father,” Pavluk said. She even put aside coins and stamps that he might like to add to his beloved collection.

In recent months, Sushko has become so eager to get married that he has offered to renew their vows online, Pavluk said.

“And I said I didn’t want to do it like that,” she recalls. “We’ve had a wedding before so I just wanted to have a little family reunion. It’s something we wanted to do, but now, well… we just haven’t gotten there.

Instead, there would be a big family reunion, but of a different and terrible kind – to mourn, not to celebrate.

During the funeral ceremony, as Pivorotny and the other priests intoned the names of the dead and sang, and incense smoke passed through the crowd with the sweet scent of myrrh and balsam, a thunderous sound rang out over the ceremony as an anti-aircraft missile was fired skyward somewhere south of the city.

The rocket streaked across the sky, leaving behind a plume of white smoke that rose, twisted and began to dissolve. The priests continued their chant, uninterrupted, as the mourners turned their eyes upward, scanning the sky.

Serhii Korolchuk, Wojciech Grzedzinski, Ievgenia Sivorka and Kostiantyn Tatarkin contributed to this report.

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