Russian Language Blog

Death in Russian, continued Posted by on Jun 14, 2021 in Culture, Russian life, Traditions, Vocabulary, when in Russia

Remember this blog where I mentioned the Russian tradition of bringing an even number of flowers to the funeral? We will talk about that and other traditions surrounding Russian funerals as well as vocabulary that relates to death in general.


So, the even number of flowers comes from old-time beliefs that even numbers symbolize a completed cycle, and therefore are appropriate at a funeral. On the other hand, giving an odd number of flowers for a joyous occasion represents movement and life.

white carnations

Image by Goran Horvat from Pixabay

And while it’s a thoughtful gesture to bring flowers to a funeral, some people end up stressing about the choice and presentation of flower arrangements, especially when attending a funeral service in a different culture. In Russia, it’s common for people to pick бе́лые и кра́сные гвозди́ки (white and red carnations), ро́зы (roses), or ли́лии (lilies). You might have seen a lot of carnations at the veteran and war memorials or on Де́нь Победы (Victory Day). People can also bring люби́мые цветы поко́йного (favorite flowers of the deceased person).

If you have been to Russia, you might have also seen flower wreaths and/or crosses on the crosswalks, along busy streets, and even on highways (на тра́ссах). Known as придоро́жные венки́ (roadside wreaths), these cenotaphs (кенота́фы) are a popular way to commemorate someone’s death, usually related to a car accident.

This cultural осо́бенность (peculiarity) is a sensitive topic for many in Russia and you can read more on the debate about кенота́фы or моги́льные па́мятники без моги́л (gravestones without a grave) here and see some photo examples here.

The image of death

Сме́рть [smert’] means ‘death ’ in Russian. It’s a seemingly simple noun but everything about it creates a unique window to the Russian culture о́браз сме́рти (image of death). Since the noun’s gender is feminine (же́нского ро́да), ‘death’ is often portrayed as a woman in a long dress, as opposed to the genderless, though I would argue more masculine, Grim Reaper. And even if some Russian-speakers don’t explicitly personify ‘death’ as a woman, because the noun is feminine, they end up referring to ‘death’ as ‘она’ (she).

a rose by the tombstone

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Words that are derived from the word “сме́рть” include:

Бессме́ртный – immortal, as in Коще́й Бессме́ртный [Koschei The Immortal]

Бессме́ртие – immortality

Сде́лать что́-либо на́смерть – to do something that results in certain death, for example:

  • разби́ться на́смерть – to die in a car crash
  • замёрзнуть на́смерть – to freeze to death
  • драться на́смерть – to fight to death

Смертник – either someone willing to commit suicide or someone condemned to die, like a prisoner facing a death sentence.

I left the words ‘смерте́льный and ‘смертоно́сный for last because they can be easily mistaken for each other but have a subtle yet important difference.

Смерте́льный – fatal, deadly

Смертельный удар – killing blow

Смертоно́сный – deadly but not fatal; literally someone who is carrying death (нести смерть).

Смертоно́сный газ – a deadly gas

Смертоно́сная гадю́ка – a deadly viper

flowers by the tombstone

Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

So, while смертоно́сный has the potential to kill you, there is a chance you will survive. On the other hand, calling something or someone смерте́льный implies the outcome is неизбе́жная сме́рть (inevitable death).  ‘Смерте́льный трюк’ and ‘смерте́льный но́мер’ (a death-defying stunt and a death-defying act) are exceptions to that, most likely because “смертоносный трюк” wouldn’t sell as many tickets at an escape artist’s show.

Other words

Burial – погребе́ние

Casket or coffin – гроб

Cemetery – кла́дбище

Cremation – крема́ция

Crematorium – кремато́рий

To embalm – бальзами́ровать

Funeral – по́хороны

Funeral home – похоро́нный дом, похоро́нное бюро́

Grave – моги́ла

An urn – у́рна с пра́хом

While this wasn’t the most uplifting blog to read (or write), I hope you found it interesting to get a glimpse of the Russian people’s perspective on death through the language they use to talk about it. I haven’t covered everything I wanted here, especially about Russian euphemisms for death, so stay tuned for an unofficial part III.

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