The funeral of Emperor Peter I. Procession of the clergy
and the carrying of coats of arms. Detail. By an unknown artist. 1725 More than two
hundred clergymen participated in the procession
In pre-Petrine Russia a tsar, when lying on his deathbed, usually took vows on the schema
(the strictest monastic rule in the Orthodox Church). His last moments in this world
were accompanied by bell-ringing and the singing of the Great Canon. Boyars and people
close to the tsar came to the palace dressed in black. The coffin with the tsar's body
attired in regal vestments and with a crown on his head was kept open for six weeks in the
palace chapel. Day and night priests chanted the psalms over the body and boyars took
turns to stand by the coffin. Messengers were sent to churches and monasteries all over
the country to bring money for funeral services that were to be held daily for six weeks
except on Sundays.
The burial took place on the fortieth day after death. The funeral procession was led
by the clergy followed by high dignitaries, boyars and members of the royal family. Many
ordinary people joined the cortege regardless of their rank and status. There was no
special farewell ceremony when the coffin was lowered: the family and friends had already
paid their last respects to the deceased in the palace chapel. The grave was not filled
with earth but covered with a stone slab.
Peter the Great introduced a new funeral rite, having borrowed it mainly from similar
ceremonies in German principalities. While preserving its spiritual aspect, he gave the
rite a more secular, theatrically sumptuous and solemn character. The new procedures did
not involve taking the monastic vows. The duration of the mourning was one year for an
emperor or an empress and three months for a grand duke. Noble ladies were supposed to
wear black at the court and noblemen were to have crape bands on their sleeves. The
emperor set up the Mourning Committee which consisted of high-ranking courtiers
responsible for all the necessary arrangements inside the cathedral and for working out
the funeral ceremony.
In the eighteenth century, as previously, the tsars were buried on the fortieth day
after death. There was only one exception: the burial of Catherine I. In the nineteenth
century this rule was not observed. The bodies of emperors and empresses were embalmed.
The heart was put into a special silver vessel while the other internal organs were kept
in a separate vessel. These vessels were placed at the bottom of the grave the day before
the funeral. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the tsars were buried with
golden crowns on their heads.
The coffin usually stood in the Throne Room of the Winter Palace, and not in the palace
chapel as previously. The best architects and painters were invited by the Mourning
Committee to decorate the Throne Room and the Peter and Paul Cathedral for the funeral
ceremony. Thus, when Peter the Great died the room in the second Winter Palace was
prepared for the funeral ceremony by Nicolas Pineau and Louis Caravaque (the second Winter
Palace stood on the site of the present Hermitage Theatre). The walls of the room were
hung with black broadcloth and decorated with tapestries and the coats of arms of Russian
funeral of Emperor Peter I. Funeral procession. View of the coffin and canopy. Detail. By
an unknown artist. 1725
"The coffin was placed on a magnificent sleigh upholstered
with black velvet and trimmed with gold lace. The sleigh was drawn by eight horses with
gold State emblems embroidered on their blackvelvet coverings.
Over the coffin was a
rich canopy held on cast silver poles decorated with coats of arms. Sixty bombardier
guards stood around the coffin holding lit candles. The coffin was followed by Her
Imperial Majesty the Empress helped by Prince Menshikov and Count Apraxin."
funeral of Emperor Peter I. Funeral procession. The coffin of Tsesarevna Natalia Petrovna.
Detail. By an unknown artist. 1725
Peter I and his daughter Natalia, who died on March 4, 1725,
were buried at the same time. "The canopy was carried by ten field-officers and two
colonels held the tassels of the pall.
Before the coffin of the Tsesarevna walked two
marshals with truncheons bearing the Sovereign's monograms. After them came Her Highness's
crown." Masters of ceremonies followed the coffin with state regalia and decorations.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, one or two days in advance, the
heralds appointed by the Mourning Committee went out to all the squares of the city to
announce the day and hour of the funeral procession. According to the Chamber-Fourrier
Journal (a daily record of court events kept by royal secretaries with the rank of
chamber-fourrier), during the funeral of Empress Maria Fedorovna in 1828, this happened in
the following way: "At midday the officials who had been appointed heralds came on
horseback to Admiralty Square. They wore full uniform and had big crepe sashes across
their shoulders and white crape cockades, and crepe bands in the places appropriate for
deep mourning; four trumpeters and an escort of mounted guards accompanied them. Having
gathered... they went to the palace of His Majesty the Emperor and, after the trumpets
were sounded, one of them read the following announcement: '... on this day, the 13th of
November, the conveying of the body... from the Imperial Winter Palace to the Peter and
Paul Cathedral will take place, where... the body of Her Majesty will be buried...' The
same announcement was read by the heralds on the squares, major streets and crossings of
the city; having done this, they returned to the Mourning Committee to report."
The beginning of the ceremony was preceded by several signals sent from the Peter and
Paul Fortress, each consisting of three cannon shots. On the first signal all the
participants in the procession gathered in places chosen for the purpose. On the second
signal they took their places in the procession. On the third the procession
started its movement. At the same time all the church bells began to chime, and the
fortress cannon fired a shot every minute till the moment the body was brought inside the
The procession itself was to emphasize not only the emperor's or the grand duke's
dignity but also the merits of the deceased.
The number of participants was very large: in the funeral procession of Peter the
Great, for example, more than ten thousand people took part. The procession was more
reminiscent of a theatrical action. It consisted of fourteen parts, each headed by a
master of ceremonies and a marshal.
The procession was led by a detachment of mounted Guards holding halberds with mourning
crape. They were followed by drummers and trumpeters, the latter began playing immediately
after the third signal. Then came the gentlemen of the court, three in a row, in black
wide cloaks and hats with loose brims; these did not play any special part in the
procession. After them masters of ceremonies carried the banners of various regions. In
front of each banner two equerries led a horse covered with a black cloth with the
regional coat of arms. The banners were followed by two knights, one on horseback, in gold
armour with his sword unsheathed, the other unmounted, also in black armour, his sword
unsheathed and pointed downwards. In this the spectators saw the allegory of life and
death, joy and grief, exultation and sorrow.
The masters of ceremonies carried the coats of arms of Siberia, Finland, Poland,
Astrakhan, Kazan, Novgorod, Vladimir, Kiev and Moscow, as well as the Great State Emblem.
They were followed by the delegates from all the estates, the educational institutions,
the Senate and the State Council. The high dignitaries of the court carried the Emperor's
decorations on small cushions: first the foreign ones, then the Russian.
Then came the Emperor's regalia: the swords, sceptres, orbs and the crowns of Siberia,
Astrakhan, Kazan and other tsardoms. All these emblems and symbols showed, as it were, the
greatness of Russia and the high dignity of the emperor.
Maurice Palaeologue, who took part in the funeral of Alexander II, wrote: "It
revealed to me all the historical activities of the Russian monarchs, from St. Vladimir
and the first Moscow princes up to the last Romanovs. Never before had I understood so
clearly the meaning of the tsars' appellation as the 'gatherers of Russian lands'."
funeral of Nicholas I. General view of the funeral procession. Drawing by Adolf
The hearse was preceded by the choir and the representatives of the highest clergy.
Drawn by eight horses covered with black horsecloths (when a grand duke died the number of
horses was reduced to six), it was accompanied by sixty pages with burning torches. Four
adjutant generals stood on both sides of the coffin.
The emperor, the heir and the grand dukes followed the hearse in order of seniority. In
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the empress and grand duchesses rode in
coaches. Next came the dignitaries of the court and the diplomatic corps. A detachment of
mounted Guards brought up the rear of the procession. The troops of the St. Petersburg
garrison stood lined up on both sides all along the way.
The route of the procession was not always the same. In the eighteenth century, during
the winter, it lay across the frozen Neva River, from the palace to the fortress and then
to the cathedral. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it ran along different
streets of the city. The procession stopped at every church on its way, and a short litia
(public worship for the deceased) was performed.
When the procession approached the fortress a black flag was hoisted on the flagstaff
of the Naryshkin bastion, and remained there till the moment of the interment. On those
days special invitation cards were distributed by the members of the Mourning Committee or
by the commandant of the fortress to restrict the admission to the fortress.
When the funeral procession came up to the St. John Bridge, it was met there by the
commandant of the fortress. The troops that accompanied the procession stopped in Trinity
Square and then went back to their barracks. The fortress inside was guarded by the
regiments which had the emperor or the grand duke as their patron. In the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, at the approach of the procession the regiments had to present
arms and the orchestra to play the Prayer.
At the west door of the cathedral, on the church porch, the burial cortege was met by
the members of the Holy Synod led by the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga. The
courtiers of high rank took off the pall with the emperor's or the grand duke's coat of
arms and carried it into the cathedral. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
they also carried the coffin inside and placed it on the catafalque. Since the
mid-nineteenth century it was done by the emperor and grand dukes. Aides-de-camps
took the lid off the coffin and put it on a specially prepared table. The generals covered
the body with the emperor's or the ducal pall. A guard of honour was posted at the
catafalque and at the entrance to the cathedral.