How Russian tsars were BURIED

Peter the Great on his deathbed Johann Gottfried Tannauer (1680-1733/37)

Peter the Great on his deathbed Johann Gottfried Tannauer (1680-1733/37)

State Hermitage
The burial ceremony of the Russian Emperors was created by Peter the Great. But his own funeral was a transitional event – from the ancient burial traditions of Rus’ to European-style official mourning. What was old and what was new?

When Grand Prince Vasily III of Moscow, Ivan the Terrible’s father, was buried, the attendants in the ceremony cried and moaned so loudly that the funeral speech of Metropolitan Daniil and the farewell words of the Moscow boyars weren’t audible. But nobody tried to stop the moaners – in those times it was considered that the louder the funeral cry, the better. Among the nobility, as well as among simple folk, professional moaner women were hired for the funerals, so that the burial ceremony would look “appropriate.”

The tsar’s burial in the Moscow state was, in essence, the same as a simple man’s burial, just more expensive. This tradition was broken by Peter the Great, the last tsar of the old Moscow Tsardom and at the same time, the first emperor of the Russian Empire who transferred the capital to St. Petersburg. But before we ‘attend’ his funeral, let’s look at the burial rituals of the Moscow tsars.

How tsars were buried before Peter the Great

The Cathedral of the Archangel in the Moscow Kremlin, the necropolis of the Moscow tsars. Constructed in 1508 by an Italian architect known as Aloisio the New.

The first task after a tsar’s death was settling the question of succession. After Vasily III died, the boyars first swore their allegiance to the Grand Prince’s son, little Ivan, and his mother consort Elena Glinskaya, and only after that, the funeral proceedings started.

Moscow tsars were usually buried the day after they died, or the same day, if they died in the morning, for obvious reasons – in the absence of refrigerators, or embalming techniques, the body was to be buried before it started to visibly decompose. So the proceedings were carried out quite speedily.

The first people who learned about the tsar’s death were the boyars and the patriarch. A single bell tolled to mark the sad event. The tsar’s body was washed by priests and dressed in ceremonial clothes made of the finest fabrics. White, red, green colors were used, combined with the colors of power – crimson, silver, gold. Only the tsars who adopted a schema – a strict monastic vow of austerity – before their death, were dressed in black. Vasily III and later, his son Ivan the Terrible were apparently the only tsars who did so. The coffin was wooden and had maroon upholstery; at the burial site, this coffin was to be placed inside another, stone one.

The closest circle bid farewell to the tsar inside the palace chambers. The mourners, contrary to the deceased tsar, were to be dressed in black and blue. The clothes were to be ragged and old. “Neatness was perceived as disrespect to the deceased – a person mourning a relative shall not demonstrate the slightest concern about his own attire,” historian Marina Logunova writes. 

The tsars' tombstones in the Cathedral of the Archangel

The funeral procession headed to the Cathedral of the Archangel in the Moscow Kremlin, the main necropolis of the tsars of Russia. If a woman from the royal family died, she was to be interred inside the Ascension Convent of the Moscow Kremlin (destroyed in 1929).

The clergy headed the procession, with the foremost priest (Patriarch, or Metropolitan of Moscow) being the last of them, walking right before the coffin. The coffin was carried by the noblest boyars, who alternated according to their hierarchical position in state service. Behind the coffin, the next tsar went first. In such a way, Feodor Alekseevich, the son of Alexey Mikhailovich of Russia, was following his father’s coffin, dressed in a black hat and with a black staff in his hand – but he didn’t actually walk, he was carried on a portable throne because his legs were lame. The new tsar was followed by his relatives, and then, by the princes, boyars, and nobility. Lay people and simple folk weren’t allowed to join the procession, which was closely guarded.

The Ascension Convent in the Moscow Kremlin, the necropolis of the Russian tsarinas. Constructed in 1518 by Aloisio de Corezano, demolished in 1929

Right before the burial, everybody begged the deceased tsar’s forgiveness – also a Russian tradition, just like the loud mourning. During 40 days after the burial, priests constantly read prayers at the gravesite – at the same time, mourning services for the tsar were made daily for 40 days in all churches of the land. After 40 days, a massive wake was held, with generous alms handed out to beggars and vagrants by the tsar’s family and the nobility. A sum compared to the country’s annual budget could be spent to properly bid farewell to the tsar.

Strangely, every tsar’s death triggered a crime wave. Amnesty of criminals was also a popular way for the state power to show its magnanimity. In the weeks after the tsar’s funeral, robbers and highwaymen walked out of jails and returned to their craft. All this was swept away and refurbished by Peter the Great.

Why Peter the Great loved funerals

Peter the Great loved to attend funerals of noble Russians and foreigners. In 1699, his friend and aide, Franz Lefort, died. Peter mourned his friend very much, but not in the old Moscow fashion.

Lefort was buried like they buried noblemen in Europe – with a regiment, a funeral orchestra, with several teams of horses dressed in black horse cloths. Behind the coffin, Lefort’s honors were carried, and an artillery salute was given when the coffin was lowered into the grave. Peter himself said the funeral speech. Another remarkable detail were the two knights.

Franz Lefort by Michiel van Musscher

The funeral ceremony of the French kings was the model for the way all funeral ceremonies of the European monarchs were held (and Peter wanted his funeral to be held in the same way). In the French tradition, when the king died, two heralds were sent to the town square to announce the mournful event. The first herald, clad in mourning dress, announced: “The king is dead!” and immediately after that, the second herald, dressed in gala attire, announced: “Long live the king!” to the backdrop of fanfares sounding. This act symbolized the continuity of the king’s power. In Russia (like in some German duchies, where Franz Lefort came from), this ceremonial function was carried out by two knights.

READ MORE:The diseases Russian tsars suffered from

The knight in gold-tinted armor with his sword raised symbolized life and the new monarchy; while the dark knight with his sword pointing to the ground was the depiction of death. The last time two knights took part in a funeral procession was Alexander III’s funeral (November 7, 1894), the last official funeral of a ruling Romanov in history.

Peter banned mourning and crying at funerals. The ceremonies were to become solemn. Peter himself became the designer of the new funerals. On April 4th, 1723, he ordered Russian envoys abroad to send him descriptions of European funerals they attended. It seems that the Emperor, sensing the approach of his own death (he suffered bladder and kidney diseases), planned his own ceremony in advance. He also “tested” his ideas during the funerals of dignitaries and relatives. Peter loved attending funerals, especially of foreigners who died in Russia.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral, Peter and Paul fortress, St. Petersburg. Necropolis of the Russian Emperors. A 19th-century engraving

According to the new rules, bidding farewell to the deceased became a ceremony. Embalming techniques started being applied. One of the first Russian royals to be embalmed was Natalia Alekseevna, Peter’s younger and most-loved sister. When she died in 1716 at the age of 42, Peter was abroad. He ordered his sister’s body to be embalmed so he could bid his farewell when he returned. Peter came back after a month and bid his farewell. His sister’s body, though, wasn’t on public display; only a few people saw it, but the embalming apparently went well.

Not the case with Peter himself. He died on January 28, and was buried on March 10, 1725. Within 10 days of his death, the body turned black and started decomposing – the embalming wasn’t successful because of the nature of the diseases that sent him to the grave. Peter died of an inflamed bladder, which suppurated significantly before his death. The embalming liquids couldn’t stop the rot, which continued in the dead emperor’s body, but his wife, the next Empress Catherine I, refused to bury Peter earlier.

How Peter the Great was buried

The Mourning Hall of Peter the Great

At the time, Peter’s funeral was unprecedented in its scope. A specially organized Mourning Commission was in charge of the event, headed by Jacob Bruce (1669-1735), statesman and scientist, one of Peter’s closest friends. From January 30, Peter’s body was on display in one of the Winter Palace’s halls, for relatives and statesmen. On February 8, Friedrich von Bergholz (1699-1765), who lived and served in Russia, wrote: “The Emperor’s body has already gone very black and spoiled; not everyone is allowed to see it.”

However, beginning from February 13, the body was on display in another, larger, and specially decorated Mourning Hall in the Winter Palace. It was 200 sq m (2,150 sq ft) and was upholstered with black cloth. What was extraordinary was the complete absence of Russian Orthodox icons in the hall. The Emperor was lying in a coffin on a pedestal, dressed in a crimson suit with silver thread (celebratory attire, just like the Moscow tsars were buried). Around the coffin, the state symbols, the tsar’s original regalia, and the tsar’s orders and decorations were placed. Inside the hall, allegorical sculptures, pyramids, and obelisks were placed, painted bronze but apparently made out of wood. Above the six doors leading into the hall, coats of arms of all Russian cities were placed.

Peter the Great's tombstone in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, Peter and Paul fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia

A dozen alternating generals, courtiers, and dignitaries stood guard at the coffin 24 hours (again, resembling the post-burial ceremonies of the Moscow tsars). Access to the body was granted to anyone, and the hall was always filled with moaning and crying simple folk – although Peter banned this, every single day by his body, crying, howls and moans were heard.

Catherine I, the Empress, was the one who moaned the most. Every single day she came to the coffin. Vice admiral François de Villebois (1681-1760) remembered: “She shed tears in amounts that surprised everyone, nobody could grasp how such a reservoir of water could fit into one woman’s head. [...] Many people deliberately came to the palace at the hours when the Empress came to the body – to look at her crying and wailing.” Catherine was asked multiple times to at least close the coffin – the Emperor’s body leaked. But the Empress was adamant – probably, she decided to strictly follow her husband’s post-mortem orders no matter what.

The funeral procession of Peter the Great, a 1725 etching (detail)

Peter was buried on March 10. The procession was huge and probably counted several thousand people; the guard regiments numbered 11,000 alone. All Petersburg was decorated with mourning colors. Cannons fired every minute during the ceremony.

The last farewell was held in the Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the Peter and Paul fortress. But the Cathedral wasn’t yet finished – so Peter wasn’t actually buried, again. His coffin stood inside the cathedral. In 1727, he was joined by Catherine I’s coffin. Only on May 29, 1731, they were buried inside a double crypt underneath the cathedral. Peter and Catherine cannot be exhumed – in order to do it, the Peter and Paul Cathedral would have to be demolished.  

Peter was the first Russian monarch who was pictured after his death. Not only were portraits made of his dead image by several artists, but a posthumous mask was also taken. A special album dedicated to the Emperor’s funeral ceremony was created and edited by Jacob Bruce. As an illustration of this album, a 30 ft long engraving was created by an unknown artist, depicting the whole procession, indicating the names, titles, and positions of all participants.

Mice Bury The Cat, an 18th-century Russian loubok (folk pictures)

Russian people responded to all this in a very Russian way. In 1725, an unknown Russian artist created the “Mice bury the cat” loubok – folk art to be sold at fairs and markets for simple people’s entertainment. This loubok clearly mocked the picturing of Peter’s funeral procession. For Russians of those times, the nobility who mourned the cruel, terrifying tsar looked like mice mourning the cat who only recently chased and eaten them.

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