Everyday life in Ukraine: The graves of Lviv

There is no war in western Ukraine, but its traces pervade everyday life. In the church, with the flower seller, in cemeteries.

Gravestones with Ukrainian and red and black flags in a cemetery

Lychakivsky Cemetery in Lviv is a special place Photo: Marco Zschieck

LWIW taz | Lviv appears peaceful and full of life on a late summer afternoon. People are walking on the broad boulevard. A drummer has set up his instrument right next to the large monument to the national poet Taras Shevchenko. To the sounds of more or less patriotic canned music, he drums for the walkers. In the neighboring garden of a Viennese-style café, every second table is occupied. Not bad for a weekday. You can hardly go further in Ukraine from the front than in this big city, 90 kilometers from the Polish border. But death is also present here.

The contrasting program is running less than 50 meters away in the former Jesuit church. Some of the historically significant stained glass windows are clad with chipboard to resist shrapnel in an attack. Singing comes from within. Around 50 visitors have gathered for the afternoon mass, including a few soldiers in uniform. A cleric from the Greek Catholic Church in a white embroidered robe conducts the ceremony.

The mighty, around 400-year-old baroque building is now officially called the Garrison Church of St. Peter and Paul and belongs to the Center for Military Pastoral Care. After the occupation by the Soviet Union, the Jesuits fled. The sacred building, which was demolished in the war, was converted into the book depot of the Academy of Sciences. That probably saved the building. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has held sovereignty here since 2008. It is the largest religious community in western Ukraine. Although it follows the rite of the Eastern Churches, it is subordinate to the Pope.

Destroyed weapons from eight years of Russian war against Ukraine are on display in the aisle of the military church. Also included is a cartridge for banned cluster ammunition. Next to it, portraits of fallen Ukrainian soldiers can be seen on a plaque. New portraits have been added since February.

The friend who wanted to get married in the summer

“We have one or two funeral services every day,” says Chaplain Roman Mentuch after Mass, back in his office. “This morning I buried a 28 year old. My age.” He says, “It’s not just photos out there. They were our friends.” He knew many of them personally, and married some of them. One of the first funerals since the invasion began in February was that of a close friend. “He wanted to get married in the summer.”

Mentuch has been a military chaplain since 2019. The task is emotionally draining, but he still enjoys doing it. Half of the time he is in Lviv, the other half he spends visiting the units from the region – also in the front area. Being back in Lviv feels like vacation for him.

Mentuch’s main task is to provide spiritual assistance to the believers, but he also supports them emotionally and psychologically. Since February he has had much more to do with the bereaved. “No words can help. We know that,” he says. “But we can listen, stand together and pray.”

In addition, the institution also tries to help in a practical way. So they helped with fundraising and with the procurement of helmets, protective vests and medicine. A car for evacuations was also arranged. Money is also being raised for the rehabilitation of the wounded.

Anna is called for funeral arrangements

For florist Anna, the many funerals mean a sad demand. The 22-year-old has a stand at the flower market on the edge of the old town. A good dozen saleswomen offer their wares inside. It smells like everything that can bloom. If you ask for funeral arrangements, the colleagues call for Anna. “Usually the units of the dead report directly from the front,” she says. Then you can prepare everything. She shows her recent work on her smartphone. There are pictures of several dozen wreaths and flower arrangements. The colors construction and yellow are often included, and almost always sunflowers.

Roman Mentuch, military chaplain

“It’s not just photos out there. They were our friends”

The fallen soldiers are usually taken to their home towns for burial. So there is no central location. There are about a dozen cemeteries in Lviv alone. A special place is the Lychakivsky Cemetery. Elaborately designed tombs can be seen. For a long time, members of the Polish upper class were buried here. Much has fallen into disrepair under Soviet rule and has been restored for a number of years. Many victims of uprisings and wars of the 19th and 20th centuries are also buried in the area. A cemetery that reflects the history of the city.

There is a memorial at the south entrance. Graves are arranged in an oval around a chapel. The tombstones all have the same design in the form of the cross of arms of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and gold-colored inscriptions. A portrait photo is attached in the middle. About 70 such graves of honor have been created since 2014. The newer graves from this year occupy approximately the same area. They don’t have a tombstone yet, only wooden crosses. But there is no longer enough space.

In the northern part of the cemetery is a meadow called Field of Mars – named after the Roman god of war. The lawn is about as wide as a soccer field and about three times as long. It is crossed lengthwise by a strip of reddish colored concrete with three stripes on dark brown granite slabs. The names of fallen Soviet soldiers from World War II are engraved on it.

Died in early to mid 20’s

Because of the reddish-brown color of the monument in Lviv is controversial, says a visitor. you remember the tsarist George ribbonwhich Stalin once reintroduced as a decoration in the Red Army and which is also a symbol of modern-day Russian aggression.

Those who recently died in the war are buried between the old cemetery wall and the World War II monument. The graves are usually marked with a wooden cross with the name and date of birth and death written on it. Many also have a photo attached. Most were killed in their early to mid-twenties.

The graves, which are a few months old, are also decorated with fresh flowers. Most have a Ukrainian flag affixed to them, and some also have the flag of the airborne brigade, which is actually based in the region. The red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army can be seen just as often. In World War II the UPA at times collaborated with Nazi Germany and fought the Polish Home Army.

It’s quiet on the Field of Mars on a Wednesday evening. Only a handful of mourners are on site. A couple attend to floral arrangements and candles at one of the tombs at the top. A man just stands there amidst the graves. At the foot of a grave, a few rows down, a woman kneels and weeps silently. A new grave has already been dug in the last row next to the existing graves.

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