Death and Narrative

Funeral procession, Petersburg

Petrograd 1917

Rites of passage order space and time, demarcate the sacred from the profane, and create a counterpoint to the banality of the everyday. The symbolic construction of a culture is revealed against the background of death. As literary scholar Alan Friedman notes, “Artifacts of death—rituals of dying and funeral, graveyards and tombs, wills and death certificates, the corpse itself—are as much communal constructs, dramatic and narrative performance, as are the texts that contain them.” This essay and the accompanying web itinerary reconstruct the death and funeral of Alexander Blok. They are developed around key moments that structure the reminiscences of his contemporaries: learning about Blok’s death; viewing the corpse in the intimate setting of his apartment; taking part in the funeral procession that moved from Blok’s home on 57 Ofitserskaya street to the Smolensk cemetery on Vasilievsky Island; and finally, the burial, remarkable for the fact that “No one spoke at the grave.”

Indeed, silence is intimately connected to both the poet and the city and becomes the dominant motif associated with Blok’s death and with the year 1921. This silence is expressed through allusions to the silence of the press about Blok’s death, the silence of the emaciated city, the transformation of Blok’s dead body, and perhaps most prominently, the silence of the funeral itself. The function and meaning of ritual silence provides an illuminating contrast against the background noises of early twentieth–century Petersburg: the streetcar’s prattle and the rhythmic sewing of the Singer factory, the chaotic sound of the slaughterhouse and the explosion of a terrorist’s bomb.

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