LVIV, Ukraine — As the bodies of fallen soldiers steadily fill up a hillside at a military cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, the old unmarked graves of those killed in past wars are being exhumed to make way for a seemingly endless stream of dead since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Monday afternoon, half a dozen gravediggers took a break in the shade, waiting for the latest coffin they would inter at the Lychakiv Cemetery. Smoking cigarettes and shielding themselves from the sun, they lamented the devastation that Russia had wrought. They said they were bracing for more deaths as fighting grows more intense during Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
On a sloping hillside, two men who died hundreds of miles apart were buried next to each other. Bohdan Didukh, 34, was killed by a mine last week on the front lines of the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine, where the first stages of Ukraine’s counteroffensive have begun. Three days later, Oleh Didukh, 52, died of a heart attack while serving in an air defense unit in the relative safety of the country’s west.
On Monday, they were honored side by side in a joint funeral in Lviv. Both of their families were overcome with grief as the soil shoveled on top of the two coffins landed with a succession of thuds. The men, who shared the same last name but never knew each other in life, were united in death in the service of their country.
One of the hard realities of Russia’s war in Ukraine is that even in a city far from active fighting, such as Lviv, soldiers killed on the front lines over the course of the 15-month-long conflict are returned to their hometowns, sometimes in groups, and laid to rest at the same time. It is seen as an efficient way to get through so many funerals when the dead keep coming.
At the funeral service for the two men in a Greek Catholic church in central Lviv, incense filling the air, the priest said that he had assumed the pair were father and son because of their names and ages. Though their families were not related, they were joined by their pain, he said.
Funerals for fallen soldiers have taken on a grim routine in Lviv. After the church ceremony, the coffins were loaded into vans and driven to the central square where a single trumpeter played. Then the cortege made its way to the graveyard.
Along the route to the cemetery, residents paused to pay their respects. A young girl stood next to her father, a small brown shopping bag in her hand, staring straight ahead as the coffins passed by. Some bystanders fell to their knees.
At the cemetery, Olena Didukh, the wife of Bohdan Didukh, fainted momentarily, overwhelmed by grief and the afternoon sun. Her sister steadied her, wrapping her arm around her back.
Kateryna Havrylenko, 50, who works for the city maintaining the graves, loaded soil onto a wheelbarrow. There are funerals here nearly every day, she said.
“With the counteroffensive, many young men and women will be killed,” she said. “Words cannot express how difficult it is. Very, very difficult. Even though they are strangers, they are someone’s children, just like I have a child.”
At the top of the hillside, city officials have begun exhuming the unmarked graves of soldiers who were buried as long ago as during World War I, young men who died at the start of the last century making way for those who have fallen in this war.
At the start of the war with Russia last year, there was just a small cluster of freshly dug graves on a hillside in one part of the cemetery. Now, nearly 500 soldiers have been buried here in plots filling half the hillside, she said, and more will come.
“It is just so hard to think — last summer, there were so few. And now there are so many.” With a faraway look, she added: “And until the war ends, how many more will there be?”
Daria Mitiuk contributed reporting.