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Radonitsa at the Russian Cemetery in Sydney

On April 29, 2014, the ninth day of Pascha, was sunny and warm for an autumn day. Known also as Thomas Tuesday, this day is marked as the ancient Orthodox holiday of Radonitsa, the commemoration of the dead. Pannikhidas are performed for the first time since Pascha in churches and cemeteries. A universal pannikhida and litiya (a short, special part of the pannikhida) are served in cemeteries.

In Orthodox cemeteries, Radonitsa is considered the “Pascha of the reposed,” a calm, unhurried and special day, without sorrow, only joy, a celebration of the “victory over dead and over all grieving and sorrow.”

From early morning, people arrive at the Russian section of Australia’s largest cemetery in Rookwood to visit the graves of their loved ones, to place fresh flowers on them, prepare Paschal foods to help commemorate the dead, colored eggs, kuliches… They light lampadas with long-burning pillar candles, and invite a priest to perform a litiya at the grave.

Many are aware that the Russian Church does not recommend cleaning the gravesite on the first day of Pascha, or even during Radonitsa. They should already be in good order, with the gravestones cleaned. The cemetery’s administration also clears the pathways and mows the grass.

The Rookwood cemetery has two sections for Russian Orthodox gravesites, known to the Russians as the “old” and “new” cemeteries.

The New Russian Cemetery

Multitudes of people clamor for priests: “Batiushka, please, over here, our loved ones are buried here.” This author caught sight of Hieromonk Dorofei (Urusov), of the convent in Kentlyn, and asked him a question:

“Fr Dorofei, what is the meaning of today’s holiday?”

“Remember how recently, on Great Saturday, we remembered the descent of Christ into Hell and His emancipation of the souls of the righteous there? We heard how Christ declared His Pascha to the dead. This took place a little earlier than the Resurrection on Earth. Now Pascha has come to us, and we share this event with the dead. We visit them as though they were still alive, and exclaim ‘Christ is Risen!’ And we believe that they hear us and respond ‘Indeed He is Risen!’”

There are three Russian Orthodox sections in the new cemetery. The largest of these has a memorial chapel built in 1991, reminiscent in style to Harbin’s St Nicholas Cathedral, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China.
Beginning in 1976, two thousand fellow Orthodox Christians found their final resting place here, many of whom, just as those who were laid to rest in the old cemetery, have entered their names for posterity in the history of the Russian presence in Australia.

Traditionally, the first universal pannikhida takes place at 11:45 at the memorial chapel in the new cemetery, which is located in the area known as the “Independent.” Everyone already knew that His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral), visiting Sydney at the present time, was going to perform the service with local clergymen.
Some ten minutes before the pannikhida, I asked Fr Alexander Filchakov, Rector of Holy Protection Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Blacktown:

“Fr Alexander, what happens at the cemetery on this special day?”

“Today we celebrate the holiday of Radonitsa. On this day we remember our reposed loved ones for the first time after Pascha of Christ. According to the rule, to Church tradition, we visit our cemeteries and exclaim ‘Christ is Risen’ to our late friends and relatives. We mentally kiss them three times, just as we do with the living, because according to Holy Scripture, there are no dead people to God. So just as we lift up our prayers for the living, we send special prayers up for the dead. Our joy for the Resurrection of Christ disseminates not only to the living, but to our beloved reposed who have passed to the other world, where there is no sorrow, nor sighing, but life eternal.”

The Old Russian Cemetery

The universal pannikhida has traditionally been performed first at the new cemetery, then at the old.
The old cemetery, at its original area, contains the graves of Russians dating back to 1955. There are some seven thousand Russians buried throughout the cemeteries. Many clergymen lie here, social figures, artists, soldiers. There are many who have been forgotten, whose gravesites have fallen to disrepair. In 1978, the now-defunct Society for the Care of Russian Cemeteries built the first Russian memorial chapel in Australia. Just like the chapel in the new cemetery, it was built according to the design of Mikhail Andreevich Bakich, who died in 2002 and is buried beside it.

Here, not far from the chapel, before the commencement of the second universal pannikhida, I was able to talk to Hegumen Christopher (Vakhabov). He came to Australia in January 2013. He is serving at Rookwood Cemetery for the second time:

“Priests are invited to the graves of relatives and friends to perform a litiya, they serve universal pannikhidas, but there are many abandoned and forgotten graves here, too. Does this solemn prayer extend to the dead in these graves as well, which are not visited by clergymen to share the Paschal joy with them?

“I walked between these graves where Russian names are inscribed, surnames of our Orthodox people who found rest here. The inscriptions speak about the history of these families, their fates, who lived in the difficult period of the 20th century. You feel a cultural, prayerful bond with them. When a priest walks by a grave, he will in the depth of his heart cross himself and note ‘Remember them, o Lord.’ The heart is especially filled with care and compassion when you see an abandoned grave. One feels especially drawn to such graves. Today, Deacon Ivan from Cabramatta cleared the leaves off of several such graves, disposed of old flowers, straightened a crooked cross. Priests approached many of them and prayed. This kind of prayer comes from the heart. The meaning of the universal pannikhida is that we call out to God and ask ‘Lord, remember all the dead, all who are buried here.’ So we believe that this prayerful blessing covers all those who lie here.”

After the second universal pannikhida, Vladyka Hilarion addressed the worshipers:

“The great feast day of Holy Pascha is the celebration of life over death. We believe that our late relatives, ancestors did not really die, but passed on to another place, a different dimension. And we pray that the Lord forgives them all their sins and took them into His Heavenly Kingdom. And we express our love, our respect, by visiting these graves, by tending to them, especially praying before them for their repose, and we remember them in our thoughts. Let us always do this. This is especially important in view of the new cemetery laws in the state, and the legislation governing burial periods. Let us be vigilant so that our reposed relatives and friends lie untouched, so that our cemetery and graves remain intact, as they are now. May God help us all; Christ is Risen!”

(Vladyka Hilarion was referring to the new law regulating all cemeteries and crematoria in the state, which has not yet gone into effect, which allows multiple use of a gravesite under certain circumstances and after specific periods of time.)

In the afternoon, the clouds thickened, which hid from our view the solar eclipse.
As dusk gathered, I once again went to Rookwood Cemetery. Several Orthodox graves already had flickering candles over them. The last to depart bade farewell, making the sign of the cross. The quietude was disrupted by the glare of headlights of cars hurrying to leave before the gates closed, and the cawing of black crows overhead, who were descending to finish off the uneaten food. Many, sadly, are unaware that the Church discourages leaving food on the graves of the dead, since it had been a pagan ritual…

unification.com.au