In Georgia, a Crematorium without Cremations

Author: Thoma Sukhashvili

Edition: Taboos/ Stigmas

Standing high on a hill overlooking Tbilisi’s Mukhatgverdi Cemetery, its two crumbling concrete towers look like just another decaying industrial relic from the Soviet past. And this building is, indeed, about death. It is the Caucasus’ only known crematorium, but, in a region and country where burial traditions run strong, it has never been used for cremations.  

The Soviet-era crematorium at Tbilisi’s Mukhatgverdi Cemetery

Constructed in 1970 on the order of the Tbilisi city government, the five-room crematorium reportedly was intended to help slow the expansion of cemeteries in what is now the capital of the country of Georgia.

One of Georgia’s premier architects, Viktor Jorbenadze, who later created its architectural cousin, Tbilisi’s space-age-style Wedding Palace, designed the building.

But lack of demand meant the crematorium never caught on. An incinerator was never installed.

Georgia’s deeply rooted custom of elaborate funeral rituals, including, among others, an at-home visitation, extensive feast and repeated visits to family graves, gave few people a reason to opt for cremation.

Instead, soon after the crematorium’s appearance, its central hall became the Mukhatgverdi Cemetery’s cafeteria; a function it fulfilled until the late 1980s, says Zurab Eqizashvili, an elderly laborer who has dug graves, made gravestones and repaired fences at the city-run cemetery  for more than 30 years.

“The hall served the relatives of the deceased, cemetery workers, and, also, administrative staff, who worked on the territory every day,” Eqizashvili recollects. “Those who could not pay for a funeral reception in a restaurant would organize the reception inside the building.”

The crematorium has stood vacant for over 20 years, he says. Cemetery workers now use the building to store their tools and supplies.

“[W]ith time, the building gets older, and it needs to be taken care of,” observes Eqizashvili. “The roof needs to be fixed, and the walls need some repair work.”

Mukhatgverdi Cemetery worker Zurab Eqizashvili
Graffiti on Tbilisi’s non-functioning crematorium

But Mikheil Dzagania, director of the city-run Hermes funeral-services company, sees no reason to restore the derelict structure. “I do not know what the reason for having this building was . . .” he concedes.

“Even today, there is no demand for cremation services,“ Dzagania claims. “Only a few people each year call and ask about the service, and those are mainly foreigners living in Georgia.“

The crematorium’s rear side features boarded-up windows.
The crematorium’s main hall now serves as storage space for cemetery workers.

The highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church, the stated faith of most Georgians, plays a key role in why Georgia lacks a working crematorium, observers say.

While the Soviet government presented cremation as a modern technique, a way to break with religious ceremonies, the Church strongly objects to the practice. 

“At that time when it was built, not many people would have opposed the idea of having a crematorium,” Dzagania says of Tbilisi’s crematorium, “but, today, the Church would oppose it because, according to Orthodox Christians, the dead should be buried. “

Although the Bible does not expressly forbid cremation, Orthodox Christians believe that burning a body contradicts Christianity’s message of resurrection after death. The Church only has rituals for burials, they note.

Those Georgians whose religion calls for cremation have no choice but to go abroad. When a leader of Tbilisi’s Hare Krishna temple died, the parish had to send the body to Moscow for cremation, according to temple member Davit Tutberidze. 

The Tbilisi crematorium’s left entrance

As yet, no one has called for Georgia’s crematorium to serve at least such religious minorities.

Yet one 73-year-old man visiting his mother-in-law’s grave in Mukhatgverdi Cemetery believes it’s time for a change from the country’s burial traditions. 

“Why are we torturing the dead?” wonders Vitaly Iakovenko, an ethnic Ukrainian resident of Georgia.“Why should we torture the relatives, who put so much emotional and financial resources into taking care of the dead? And for what? Is it because religion opposes cremation? I am Christian, but European countries are also Christian and cremation is available there, and it is not a sin.”

The thought of “thousands of worms” devouring his mother-in-law’s flesh horrifies Iakovenko.  “Some of them come up from the ground,” he claims. “How is it possible to see a loved one eaten up by worms?

An empty schedule for funeral dinners still hangs in the crematorium.
Vitaly Iakovenko visiting his mother-in-law’s grave in Mukhatgverdi Cemetery.

Those Georgians who do opt for cremation reportedly tend to send family members’ bodies to Ukraine, where a crematorium exists in the Black Sea port city of Odessa. Chai Khana, however, could not find any families willing to speak about the experience.  

The cost for such a procedure motivates many. A few years ago, the fixed cost of cremating a body in Odessa was 840 hryvnia, or about $32.14, according to one Ukrainian report. 

By comparison,  traditional burial services (a grave plot, grave digging, coffin, and mortuary refrigeration) cost in Tbilisi, on average, 1,500 laris ($630.20), depending on location, estimates Hermes’ Dzagania.  (Prices at private cemeteries can be more than double that, reported.)  

Shovels for digging graves stand inside the crematorium.
At city cemeteries, graves are enclosed by low stone walls, which take up additional space.

On top of cost concerns, a perception that Tbilisi’s mostly city-run cemeteries have run out of space often leads to the few calls about cremation that the Hermes funeral-services bureau receives, Dzagania says.

Twenty-five of the city’s 54 municipal cemeteries are now closed, prompting families sometimes to bury deceased relatives on top of the remains of their ancestors. Or, notes Iakovenko, to remove the bones from abandoned family graves and sell the plot to another family. 

Dzagania, though, stresses that “for sure, for the next 50 years Tbilisi will not lack space for burials.” Based on official census information, the city’s population of some 1.06 million does not appear to be growing, though high traffic congestion and steady urban sprawl suggest otherwise.

But, eventually, Dzagania adds, “it would be important to have a new architectural plan for the city’s development.” 

Sixty-one-year-old Hare Krishna member Tutberidze hopes that a crematorium will be part of Tbilisi’s future. “The city is crowded with cemeteries,” he observes. “You will see many houses located near them. It cannot go on like this.“

Iakovenko agrees. “I think it is important to start public discussions regarding this issue.” A functioning crematorium, he stresses, would at least allow those Georgians who desire cremation “to die as they wish.”  

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