Indeed I was faced with the prospect of burying my father here after I came within a hair of failing to meet the requirements to transport his body to New York, where hundreds were waiting to mourn the passing of Jan Zawada, 65, an active member of the Ukrainian community there.
He died the morning of Saturday, Aug. 1 while visiting me and my family in Ukraine for the baptism of his grandson. Little did I know that the immense grief of my loss would be compounded by a predatory funeral industry, infiltrated by mafia-like characters who prey on those stricken with tragedy.
Although I had lived in Kyiv for ten years and I am familiar with Ukrainian society and culture, I was unprepared for the web that awaited me in Zhytomyr, a medium-sized city with a population of 270,000.
The first thing to realize about dealing with the death of a relative abroad is that a timer immediately begins ticking. In Ukraine’s case, if you don’t jump through its series of bureaucratic hoops within a certain time period, you’ll be left burying your parent in a grave that your friends and family will rarely visit, if ever.
My clock began ticking on Saturday morning, when I had 12 hours to embalm his corpse before it began to decompose.
A relative and I called three funeral service companies in the city, only to have them all recommend unanimously that we work with Mykola Dariyenko for all my needs, particularly if it involved transporting the body. It immediately became obvious to us that he had an air-tight clamp on the local funeral business.
This didn’t bother me initially. I had a big task on my hands and I was ready to work with anyone who could help me resolve it. If he could deliver competent services at a reasonable cost, then all the best to his monopoly.
When I met Dariyenko, who was dressed in flip flops and gym shorts, he was accompanied by an embalmer who discussed in detail with my relative the medical circumstances behind my father’s death.
As it turns out, Viacheslav Ivanovych (Ukrainians rarely give their surnames when asked) is a medical doctor. Apparently, in this devastated Ukrainian economy, doctors have adopted new skills such as embalming and have teamed with entrepreneurs like Dariyenko to cash in on funerals. Which are always in demand, after all.
So while the doctor/embalmer was explaining the nuances of a pulmonary embolism, Dariyenko was explaining that he couldn’t provide a breakdown of prices for the services that I’ll need.
The total fee for everything we need – embalming, refrigeration, an air-tight coffin, as well as transporting to Kyiv and then New York – would be “about $3,000.” Again, no specifics, just “everything you need.”
In his turn, Dariyenko needed Hr 3,500 ($157) in advance for the Hr 10,000 ($448) embalming price tag.
As my relative and I were trying to decide what to do, Dariyenko and the embalmer began walking away. Yes, an old trick. And it certainly worked, since he knew I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar town with no options. When I asked where the body would be stored, they only replied, “Huyva,” offering nothing else.
The first thing I did Monday morning was visit the U.S. Embassy to find out what documents I needed, something that Dariyenko said I didn’t need to do since he could handle everything.
Fortunately, I did the opposite and got a clear list of the documents I needed to be able to transport my father’s corpse to New York. I was also informed that I needed to bring them by Wednesday, at about noon, in order to transport the coffin on the 11:00 a.m. flight on Thursday, which I arranged that afternoon.
I then began collecting prices from the funeral folks in Kyiv. As it turned out, Dariyenko charged for embalming double the rates in the capital city.
I also found out there are two firms in Kyiv that can handle my needed services and they even broke down the prices for each service. That way, I was able to return to Zhytomyr with negotiating leverage. Although I returned by 6:30 p.m., Dariyenko didn’t come around to my relatives’ home until 9:30 p.m.
And there’s nothing like haggling over the cost of funeral services late into the night, with the hanging threat that this fellow could do something nasty if I sever my “business deal” with him. He had the all-important embalming certificate, which I needed in order to gain two crucial documents: the customs permit and sanitary permit.
After explaining to him that I got exact prices from Kyiv, minutes of evasiveness turned into haggling, which knocked the price down to $2,700, which turned into half threats and raised voices, which chipped it down further to $2,300.
At this point, I realized that if I couldn’t trust him to be honest with prices, I couldn’t trust him with things more important, such as securing the necessary documentation. So I decided that night to go with a Kyiv firm, even if the haggled-down price was similar.
By Tuesday morning, we were trying to find out just where “Huyva” was. It wasn’t a street in Zhytomyr. My relative with me throughout this ordeal called the physician-mortician directly to find out. And Viacheslav refused to tell him! So he called the morgue where my father’s body was originally delivered.
Viacheslav then called me and angrily demanded to know why we were “calling around.” Because you won’t tell me where my father’s corpse is, I responded. “IT’S IN HUYVA,” he shouted and warned me not to contact any authorities.
After some Internet research, we found out Huyva is a village four miles south of the city. This information was valuable just in case we needed to launch a “tactical strike” to retrieve the corpse. Maybe that’s what Viacheslav was fearing. Or he might have been evasive because he was taking payment under the table.
In between researching and haggling prices, trying to locate my father’s corpse, and praying to get the embalming certificate, I also had to secure the all-important death certificate. That was the third of four crucial documents, in addition to the coroner’s report that was issued immediately at the morgue.
Zhytomyr’s unanimous expert on transporting corpses abroad neglected to mention that I needed a translated copy of my father’s American passport, as I found out from visiting a city register first thing Tuesday morning.
If I had known on Monday, I could have translated that page in a single hour in Kyiv. Yet Zhytomyr had only one translation agency working that day (it was the peak of summer), and it required four hours for a text I could have translated myself in 15 minutes!
Which would barely give me enough time to return to the register’s office to get the death certificate issued. I arranged for the guys from Kyiv to arrive first thing Wednesday morning to haul my father’s corpse from Huyva. Everything had to be shored up TODAY.
So you can imagine the shock I felt when – with the translation in hand – I saw a sign posted on the door stating, “The register will close early today at 4:00 p.m.”
It was 3:45 p.m. and the door was locked shut! I felt as if I were in a scene from a tourist horror film, like the 2006 French film “Them,” in which a foreigner gets trapped in a sleepy town only to get devoured by its scheming residents.
To my great relief, the official arrived within five minutes of my mounting hysteria. Next problem to surface: when I reached an agreement with the Kyiv firm, I was told I would have the necessary documents no earlier than 1:00 p.m.
So I called the U.S. Embassy and my contact acquiesced reluctantly to push the deadline up to 5:00 p.m. after consulting with her supervisor.
As the close of the business day approached, it became apparent that Dariyenko had yet to return the embalming certificate. When he arrived at my relatives’ home a little after 6:00 p.m., my wife pointed out that it lacked the necessary stamp and contained numerous grammatical mistakes.
He angrily grabbed it out of her hands, vowing we would never get the document, and left us high and dry upon driving away. Yet I was not going to let this flip flop-wearing derelict be the single obstacle to delivering my father to New York!
So I called a political contact of mine, the former Zhytomyr regional administration head that I knew from my journalism experience.
Those who say money solves problems in Ukraine are wrong. Having political connections solves problems, which is why the election battles are so fierce here.
My political contact placed a call to the local authorities and magically, Dariyenko was able to stamp the document – and rewrite its three sentences – within 15 minutes. But not without a final slap in my wife’s face. He demanded the remainder of the embalming payment. My wife said we’d pay it when we saw my father’s body the next morning.
“That’s not real money for me!,” he snapped in regards to the fee that was twice the Kyiv rates. He claimed we were responsible for the two days it took to produce a three-sentence embalming certificate (the same one he rewrote within 15 minutes) and wanted compensation for all the “work.” My wife duly ignored him, as she would an infant’s tantrums.
By Wednesday morning, we hit the road to Kyiv with an agreement with Oleksandr (literally half of Ukraine’s men have the name Oleksandr, or “Sasha”) that I will pay 13,800 hryvnias ($619) total for transferring the body (3,500 hryvnias), an air-tight coffin (6,500 hryvnias), refrigerating the body (300 hryvnias) and securing the necessary documents (3,500 hryvnias).
No foreigner will succeed in securing the necessary documents in time for a corpse shipment without one of these intermediaries, who are not only not regulated in any way, but utterly unaccountable. Moreover, I found no more than three companies that offer these services in Kyiv.
I never met any of these employees in any office, and I knew only one surname. Yet another example of how Ukraine’s post-Soviet rotting bureaucracy creates enormous profit for a few parasites, while undermining the country’s normal and civil functioning in the process.
I tell Sasha that I need the documents by 1:00 p.m. to get them translated in time for submitting to the U.S. Embassy by 5:00 p.m. No problem, he reassures me, and doesn’t seem the least bit phased when we hit traffic in Kyiv.
These parasites leave no stone unturned when it comes to making even the smallest profit. When I generously offer to make the first of two payments of 7,000 hryvnias in U.S. dollars (which I know are much preferred over hryvnias), he dissatisfiedly suggests an exchange rate of 22 hryvnias per U.S. dollar, when almost every exchange booth is proposing 22.3 hryvnias. I refused.
Sasha dropped me off at about 11:00 a.m. at a McDonald’s, promising to return by 1:00 p.m. He ended up being late by a half hour, and we spent another ten minutes exchanging documents and money in a bus under a nearby bridge (again, no offices).
In a situation in which every minute counts, that’s 40 minutes less to get to the translation agency and get the documents translated by 4:15 p.m., which would have afforded me 45 minutes to get to the U.S. Embassy by 5:00 p.m.
When I arrive at one of the top agencies at about 2:20 p.m., the receptionist tells me they need three hours for both documents.
I then realize there’s no way I can get to the U.S. Embassy in time. I begin to imagine having to bury my father’s body somewhere in Kyiv and having to deal with a whole new set of pitfalls and predators. I call my contact at the American Citizen Services to inform her that I wasn’t going to make in time.
She was surprised, “Why not?”
“Because I’ve been working with a funeral mafia!,” I responded in frustration. “I can come at 5:45 p.m.”
“We’re closed by then. Bring the documents at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. You’ll have them ready by 8:30 a.m. and you can be at Boryspil by 9:00 a.m.” Without any traffic. And barely in time for boarding.
My final task that evening was to make the $1,935 payment to ensure that my father’s air-tight coffin would be included in the UIA flight’s cargo.
As with Sasha, I met Dima in a parked car under a bridge. As with Sasha, I didn’t know his surname. As with Sasha, he was curt. As with Sasha, he demanded an exchange rate of 22 hryvnias per U.S. dollar, below the market rate. Since I was at the final lap and it didn’t involve a large sum ($35), I caved in.
The next morning, I visited the U.S. Embassy at 8:00 a.m., got the vital documents by 8:30 a.m (including 20 copies of a death certificate valid in the U.S.), sped off to Boryspil and met Dima on another street, in his car, to transfer the documents to him. The monkey was off my back and I could finally begin to … mourn.
The U.S. Embassy needs to offer more guidance to foreigners caught in this situation. It should research and provide a list of legitimate funeral intermediaries to deal with in each regional center, taking into account the feedback of U.S. citizens.
It should also accept, register and review complaints, relaying them to the appropriate government body in Ukraine. It should update its list of prices for various funeral services, at least annually.
The U.S. Embassy should request that the Ukrainian government establish licensing for funeral services providers. This state body should periodically review the qualifications and performance of those licensed, and review complaints for possible criminal violations.
The Ukrainian government should also provide for securing necessary permits and certificates with the minimum of difficulty, without the need for seedy intermediaries.
I thank the ACS staff for being flexible enough to issue the necessary permits at very last minute, literally. It was thanks to their efforts that my father was buried with dignity, with his friends and family present.
I thank my relatives and friends in Ukraine, who helped me with every step as I navigated the jungle of Ukraine’s funeral services industry.
I also take this opportunity to advise any foreigner with ill elderly parents to discourage them from visiting Ukraine, especially beyond the capital city of Kyiv. They might not make it back in time for the funeral.
Zenon Zawada is a political analyst at Kyiv-based investment bank Concorde Capital and is a former chief editor of the Kyiv Post.