LVIV, Ukraine – For many Ukrainians facing Russian invasion, there is hope that daily battles can be won: a soldier can defeat his enemies. A savior can miraculously rescue a survivor from the rubble. A doctor can save a life.
But in a line of work also deeply affected by this war, grief seems to be the only sure end: dealing with the dead.
From undertakers to undertakers, funeral directors to investigators, these workers carry deep psychological wounds from the war – and have few others who can contact them.
“I feel numb these days,” said Anthony, a morgue worker in Lviv, Ukraine. “Even when 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 west of Ukraine, is largely untouched by the war, but death is still here. Locals are burying the bodies of soldiers killed in battles farther east. Families fleeing their hometowns, now occupied by Russian forces, must meet their loved ones who died far from home here.
Along with other workers in the area, Anthony asked to be identified only by his first name, because although Ukrainians showed deep respect for those killed in the war, the workers said there remained a residual stigma around those dealing with the dead. He joined the army when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and remained in Ukraine’s volunteer force.
But when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, he was told to stay home: his work was considered critical infrastructure. He often noticed that the soldiers in the morgue could not bring themselves to look at their dead comrades.
“We have to stay here and do this work, because no one else can,” he said.
Ukraine and Russia retain the number of victims strictly kept secrets, mainly issuing statements that cannot be verified, about the losses of the other party. A senior adviser to the Ukrainian president recently estimated that about 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers die every day, up from just a few weeks earlier when President Volodymyr Zelensky said between 60 and 100 were killed every day.
Rising figures reflect how the front line has shifted since Ukraine pushed Russian forces away from its capital Kyiv at the start of the war. The battles moved east, standing up fortified fighters against ruthless artillery attacksin which Moscow seems to have the upper hand.
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“We did one or two funerals a month. We are short-sighted now, “said Mihailo, a gravedigger who buries many of the dead that Anthony is preparing for burial. “Every day there is a funeral – sometimes several at once. And they’re all so young. “
Anthony, although he maintains a strong outer shell, treats bodies with care. He wraps his crooked legs in plastic, applies powder to bruised faces. He gently dresses the soldiers in uniforms taken from a pile of donations – or sometimes a special suit chosen by relatives.
“They come here in poor condition, covered in dirt, blood and open wounds,” he said. “We clean them, sew them together again and make them look right.”
Boris Ribun, who runs the morgue, said the work “feels much more psychologically complex” than before the war.
The dead who come in are young people, he said, and have horrific wounds.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to put the body parts together. There may be some serious damage, “he said, holding back tears. “But we are trying. We are doing what we can so that their families can say goodbye. “
Anthony has long been accustomed to dead bodies, regardless of their condition – even when only one person can return, he stays with their families in a plastic bag.
But his hands tremble as he describes that he must see his relatives. One morning he withdrew quietly when a woman entered the morgue to see her son’s body. She cried out inconsolably, then fainted on the floor.
“You can get used to almost anything, you can get used to almost any kind of work,” Anthony said. “But it’s impossible for me to get used to the emotions of these people who come here to see their loved ones.”
Outside the Lichakovo cemetery, Mihailo and his colleagues begin their work at dawn as the city wakes up from sleep. They dig six feet down, wipe their eyebrows, smoke cigarettes and make jokes when they stop to rest.
“You have to keep joking – you have to. If you take it to heart, you go crazy, “said Mikhail.
The historic Lviv cemetery, which dates back to 1786, is full of local dignitaries and includes monument to Soviet soldiers who fights the Nazis. Now there is no place in the cemetery for the number of bodies imported. There are about 50 fresh graves in a grassy field outside the cemetery walls.
The new plot stands in the shadows of several stone crosses, whose plaques 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 found from a mass grave discovered in the early 1990s, when Mihailov began his work as a gravedigger. Reburial was one of his first tasks.
In those early days of Ukraine’s independence, it was difficult to find a job with a regular salary. Mihailo took a job as a gravedigger in part, because although he paid little, the money came on time.
“At first I didn’t tell anyone I was working in the cemetery,” he said. “I was ashamed.”
Wiping away his tears, he said he still found no meaning in his work: “We have nothing to be proud of.”
Due to the growing need for funeral management, the Lviv government has appointed a municipal council official to deal with daily funerals. A state-backed company, the Municipal Ritual Service, covers most of the costs by providing coffins and flowers for servicemen killed in battle.
“Each of their stories is unique. It is necessary to write about them – for everyone “, said the 29-year-old Elizabeth, who worked in the company for only six months when the war started.
At the top of many graves, families leave signs of remembrance of who they were close to in life: a scraper for a painter. Video game console for teens. A medallion carved in the pen of a writer. Favorite candy bar.
Some of the graves have carefully planted flower beds. Almost all have candles that flicker as darkness falls every night.
Back at the morgue, Anthony said that the only time he and his colleagues chose not to work on a body was when a dead soldier was a friend. Then, he said, he finds himself struggling with the same disbelief he often sees in the eyes of the bereaved.
Working here has taught him not to find morgues or funerals scary, he said. But that did not diminish his fear of death.
“There is no person who is not afraid of death,” said his colleague Mihailo. “I buried everyone from doctors to scientists. In the end, death takes us all. ”