A guide to the New East

Morbid curiosity

Experience the unexpected at Siberia's death museum

There’s a place where Jesus and Buddha stand shoulder to shoulder and dinosaurs jostle up against sphinxes. And these are by no means the only strange juxtapositions on display. 

Welcome to the first private crematorium in Russia. Its owner, Sergei Yakushin, has created an entire funerary empire – an empire that comprises a crematorium; a library; a memorial park; an international exhibition of ceremonial services known as Tanexpo Necropolis; a factory that specialises in producing items for the “mourning industry"; and, last but not least, a museum of world funerary culture.

The heart of this empire is in Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia. The crematorium is regarded by many as one of the new architectural symbols of the city, and locals straight-facedly advise all tourists to visit it at the first opportunity. 

Visitors tend to brace themselves for something unusual, but the reality is odder than they could imagine. The initial source of bewilderment is the memorial park, accessed via one of a series of alleys whose trees are all individual columbaria (places for the publicaly storage of cineray urns), their branches extending over mourning wreaths, small sculptures, benches, the possessions of the deceased – and a live camel. Nearby is a children’s playground, military hardware, monuments, skulls, a series of real tombstones, a Gulag-era train, an old tram, retro hearses and an actual ship. This stylistic and cultural heterogeneity should, according to Yakushin, cater to any and everyone’s spiritual needs, regardless of their beliefs.

Visitors tend to brace themselves for something unusual, but the reality is odder than they could imagine.

The museum of world funerary culture, for its part, rivals the memorial park in terms of uniqueness: the only museum of its kind in Russia, it is also one of the largest in the world. Its collection comprises some 8000 items and continues to grow. The main exhibition area features numerous death-themed dioramas as well as exhibits exploring cremation and mourning. The most important event in the museum’s calendar is the Night of Museums in May, which tends to attract several thousand people. A thematic exhibition created specifically for this purpose occupies the museum’s second building. The crematorium also hosts regular concerts and charity events and marks all memorable dates and anniversaries.

All these cultural and educational endeavours may well have never materialised were it not for a ban on the advertising of ceremonial services issued by the city administration. Yakushin openly admits that the whole thing is, in large part at least, a marketing ploy to promote his crematorium. Yet he also believes that a visit to the crematorium – and, concomitantly, a greater familiarity with funerary art objects and with the rituals and history of funerary culture – will enable people to adopt a more philosophical attitude to their lives and destinies.

The establishment of the whole complex was also catalysed by its owner’s close encounter with death. 

“Having been diagnosed as a cancer patient,” Yakushin recalls, “I began to get rid of what was left of my previous business. I thought that I’d just concentrate on the crematorium, that it wouldn’t present too many difficulties now. I spent three years dying. I was given three to four months to live and didn’t see the point of undergoing any treatment or chemotherapy. Five diagnostic laboratories had diagnosed me with cancer in two locations. I was dying, but not from cancer. I developed stress-related diabetes. The cancer diagnosis turned out to be a false one; or rather, I say now that I didn’t have cancer, but I actually don’t know whether this was the case and nor does anyone else.” 

Greater familiarity with funerary art objects and with the rituals and history of funerary culture will enable people to adopt a more philosophical attitude to their lives

Yakushin’s personal history is inextricably woven into the fabric of the park, crematorium and museum. The park’s main alley features a separate columbarium containing the remains of his family members; visitors to the museum can admire posthumous casts of his father's hands, and the crematorium has become a family business.

“In parallel to all this, I also set up a hospice,” says Yakushin. “My condition was so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. I know from personal experience how critically important it is to provide relief in the final stages of illness – palliative care is essential. Now I’m doing what I enjoy most.” 

This article was produced as part of The Calvert Journal’New Writers Programme.

Text and image: Alisa Aiv

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