No Time for Funeral Rites

The gravedigger of Bucha provides evidence of Russian atrocities.

Black-and-white photo zooming in on a handheld digging tool, graves marked with crosses in the background
Stringer / Reuters / Redux

Three hundred sixty-five days of war, and my mind keeps drifting back to one of them: the June morning when I met Andriy Galavin, the gravedigger of Bucha.

Sunburned and baggy-eyed, he stood at the end of a stairway on a small hill that led to an imposing church. War hadn’t muted the vibrancy of spring; a charred remnant of a backyard garden, all ashes and burnt shards of terra cotta, sat next to an unscathed plot of growing vegetables. Workers carrying weed trimmers tamed ankle-high patches along the side of the road, maneuvering around the steel corpses of armored vehicles.

The gravedigger was the human wreckage of the war. Like some mythological figure, he seemed fixed to the landing in front of the church, doomed to spend his days telling and then retelling his story to visitors, an endless loop of excruciating witness. Each time a bureaucrat from the European Union or a curiosity seeker from Kyiv or a reporter from overseas climbed the steps, he would begin at the beginning.

Before he was a gravedigger, he was a priest. He came from Lviv, in the west, a young believer, eager to tend to a flock. Because there was no physical church in the village, an old railway stop, he held services in a private house.

Over time, the metropolis began to encroach on the town. Apartment buildings sprouted, cornfields became parks, middle-class workers arrived in search of bucolic trappings. Eventually, the children he baptized married and then became parents themselves. He built a concrete church, with five gilded domes splayed across towering cupola.

Last winter, the priest began hearing the rumors of war, which threatened to shatter all this. And on the morning of February 24, the worst arrived. He awoke to the sound of explosions in the near distance. When he stepped outside, he could see Russian helicopters, flying low to the ground as they descended on Hostomel Airport. In the chaos of the moment, he sent his wife and two kids to Lviv, and he took his car to the gas station to fill up the tank, just in case he needed to flee himself.

Despite his terror, he kept his church open so that the villagers could pray in their hour of panic. But as he donned his vestments and made preparations for a service, Russian bullets strafed the building. He told his parishioners to go home and stay there.

On the second day of the war, the invading army began to stalk village streets. Before the priest made the journey from his apartment to his church in search of candles that he needed for prayers, he vowed that he would never reveal his identity, for fear that it would doom him to a quick death. He had already heard a story about the Russians executing a priest in a neighboring town.

On the third day, he saw his first corpse in the street. The sight of it didn’t panic him. He was accustomed to seeing lifeless bodies. And he had a sense that it wouldn’t be the last.

Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the Russians vacated the village—a teasing moment of hope. But they returned again and fought a ferocious battle to capture this small piece of strategic territory. This time, they secured control of the town and deliberately destroyed its infrastructure. The villagers became prisoners in their own homes—or in basement shelters—without food, electricity, water, or communication with the world beyond their doors. Even taking a breath of fresh air on the balcony of an apartment was perilous, because drunk Russian soldiers would treat Ukrainians who poked their head outside as an occasion for target practice.

It was strange to live in such a small place yet know so little about the fate of one’s neighbors. But the priest collected small slivers of intelligence whenever he worked up the courage to walk to his church. He learned that members of the local territorial defense forces whom he saw alive one day had turned up dead in the street the next. A friend and his daughter hid in a basement, then escaped, which was lucky because the Russians later blew up their house.

Not far from his church was a hospital with a morgue. But without electricity, the morgue stopped working. Besides, the number of corpses would have exceeded its capacity. After the Russians killed a woman in her car, neighbors buried her body nearby, using her license plate as a gravestone so that they could later find her corpse and eventually give her a proper burial. Bodies began to line the street, gnawed to bits by the booming population of stray dogs.

When the Russians visited the hospital in search of their injured comrades—and also wounded Ukrainian resistors that they might torture for information—the doctors mentioned the dysfunctional morgue and the problem of the rotting corpses. They begged for permission to bury the dead. Because the cemetery was beyond the village limits, that wasn’t a viable option.

The priest volunteered the grounds of his church.

The Russians allowed the priest and doctors to use a tractor to dig a trench. On March 10 a truck belonging to the municipal government arrived with 67 corpses shrouded in body bags, which they piled into the hole in the earth. The next day they repeated the exercise, only this time there were no body bags left. They wrapped the corpses in carpets. Elbows protruded from the clay as they topped off the mass grave.

There was no time for the priest to perform funeral rites. As he helped bury the dead, the Red Cross oversaw a humanitarian corridor, allowing villagers with cars to drive away from the Russian occupation. The priest went back and forth between the mass graves in his church and the panicked streets of town, encouraging parishioners to leave the hellscape. But not everyone could avail themselves of the opportunity.

In the remaining days of the occupation, the Russians seemed to consume larger quantities of alcohol and behaved with even greater cruelty. A singer in the church choir was shot. The priest saw photos of villagers hog-tied and executed from behind. On Yablonska Street, dead bodies proliferated like mushrooms.

Then, it was done. When the Ukrainian army liberated the village on March 31, the graves in his churchyard became the epicenter of global attention—the most concrete possible evidence of Russian atrocities. Eighteen French investigators exhumed the dead and conducted a forensic accounting. The imperative—learned from the Holocaust and every genocide that followed—was to meticulously document, so that nobody could deny what had happened in the village.

On the day of my visit, I stopped in the yard behind the church, where the process of memorialization had already begun with wreaths, flowers, and an improvised crucifix. The bodies had been relocated and given the burial they deserved. But I could still see the outlines of the former graves, because they were largely devoid of grass and weeds, except for a few green shoots struggling to emerge from the ground.

The gravedigger was wearing blue shirtsleeves, jeans, and sandals, the look of a suburban dad. There was nothing that physically identified him as a priest. As he told his story, I couldn’t resist the journalistic impulse to inflict further pain. At each turn in the story, I asked him, “What did you feel?” After the fourth time I posed the question, he gently begged me to desist. “I can’t allow feeling into my heart. If I did, I wouldn’t make it to the next day.”