LVIV, Ukraine. For many Ukrainians facing a Russian invasion, there is hope for victory in daily battles: a soldier can fight back against his enemies. The rescuer can miraculously pull a survivor out of the rubble. A doctor can save a life.
But in one line of work, also heavily affected by this war, grief seems to be the only sure end: the treatment of the dead.
From gravediggers to undertakers, from funeral directors to coroners, these workers bear the deep psychic wounds of war—and few can understand them.
“Now I feel numb,” said Anthony, a mortuary worker in Lvov, Ukraine. “Even when someone tells me a joke that I know is funny, I can’t laugh. My emotions are too blunted.”
Lviv, a city in the relatively safe west of Ukraine, is hardly physically affected by the war, but death still comes here. Locals bury the bodies of soldiers who fell on the battlefields further east. Families who fled their hometowns, now occupied by Russian troops, must bury their loved ones here who died far from home.
Along with other workers in the area, Anthony asked to be referred to by his first name only, because although the Ukrainians showed deep reverence for the fallen in the war, the workers said that there was a residual stigma around those who deal with the dead. He joined the army when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and remains part of Ukraine’s volunteer forces.
But when Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, he was told to stay at home: his work was considered critical infrastructure. Often he notices that the soldiers in the mortuary cannot bring themselves to look at their fallen comrades.
“We need to stay here and do this job because no one else can,” he said.
Ukraine and Russia have kept their casualty figures in the strictest confidence, mostly releasing unverifiable claims about the other side’s casualties. A senior adviser to the President of Ukraine recently estimated that between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day, up from a few weeks earlier, when President Volodymyr Zelensky said 60 to 100 people were being killed every day.
The rising numbers reflect how the front lines have shifted since Ukraine pushed Russian troops back from its capital, Kyiv, at the start of the war. The fighting has shifted east, pitting entrenched fighters against relentless artillery fire, in which Moscow appears to have an advantage.
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“We used to have one or two funerals a month. Now we don’t have enough hands,” said Mikhailo, a gravedigger who buries many of those whom Antony is preparing for burial. “Every day there are funerals, sometimes several at once. And they’re all so young.”
Although Anthony retains a strong outer shell, he treats the bodies with care. He wraps his crippled legs in plastic, powders his bruised faces. Carefully, he dresses the soldiers in uniforms pulled from a pile of donations, and sometimes in a special costume chosen by loved ones.
“They come here in poor condition, covered in dirt, blood and open wounds,” he said. “We clean them, sew them back together and put them in order.”
Boris Rybun, head of the morgue, said the work “seems psychologically much more difficult” than before the war.
According to him, the coming dead are young people, and they have terrible wounds.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to put body parts together. There could be very serious damage,” he said, holding back tears. “But we are trying. We are doing our best so that their families can say goodbye to them with dignity.”
Antony has long been accustomed to dead bodies, no matter what state they are in – even when he can return the remains of a person to their families only in a plastic bag.
But his hands are shaking as he describes that he has to see his relatives. One morning, he quietly backed away when a woman entered the morgue to see her son’s body. She screamed inconsolably, and then fainted to the floor.
“You can get used to almost everything, you can get used to almost any job,” Antony said. “But I can’t get used to the emotions of these people who come here to see their loved ones.”
At the Lychakiv cemetery, Mikhailo and his colleagues begin work at dawn, while the city wakes up from sleep. They burrow six feet down, wiping their eyebrows, smoking cigarettes incessantly, and making jokes when they stop to rest.
“You have to keep joking – you have to. If you take all this to heart, you will go crazy,” Mikhailo said.
Lviv’s historic cemetery dating back to 1786 is filled with local celebrities and includes monument to Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazis. Now there is no place in the cemetery for so many brought bodies. There are about 50 fresh graves in a grassy field outside the walls of the cemetery.
The new story stands in the shadow of several stone crosses whose plaques commemorate another generation of Ukrainian fighters: those who fought against the Soviet Union during and after World War II. The bones of these men were recovered from a mass grave discovered in the early 1990s, when Mikhailo began working as a gravedigger. Reburial of them was one of his first tasks.
In those early days of Ukraine’s independence, it was hard to find a job with a steady paycheck. Mihailo got a job as a gravedigger in part because, although the pay was low, the money came on time.
“At first I didn’t tell anyone that I worked at the cemetery,” he said. “I was ashamed.”
Wiping away tears, he said that he still did not find meaning in his work: “There is nothing to be proud of with this work.”
Due to the growing need for funeral management, the Lviv government appointed a representative of the city council to conduct daily funerals. The state-owned company, the Municipal Funeral Service, covers most of the costs by providing coffins and flowers for soldiers who died in action.
“Each story is unique. You need to write about them — about all of them,” said 29-year-old Elizaveta, who had worked at the company for only six months when the war began.
On many graves, families leave tokens in memory of who their loved ones were in life: a painter’s spatula. Teenage game console. Medallion carved on a writer’s pen. Favorite candy bar.
Some of the graves are neatly planted with flower beds. Almost everyone has candles that flicker every night after dark.
Returning to the morgue, Antony said that the only time he and his colleagues decided not to work on the body was when the dead soldier was their friend. Then, he says, he finds himself wrestling with the same distrust he often sees in the eyes of mourners.
According to him, working here taught him not to be afraid of morgues and funerals. But this did not lessen his fear of death.
“There is not a single person who is not afraid of death,” said his colleague Mikhailo. “I buried everyone, from doctors to scientists. In the end, death takes us all.”