Defense ministry spokesperson: Reburial of war grave remains to take years

With some Soviet-era war memorials, such as this one at Karksi-Nuia, Viljandi County, it is not even clear if there are actually human remains on-site, with claims that there are often based on local lore.
With some Soviet-era war memorials, such as this one at Karksi-Nuia, Viljandi County, it is not even clear if there are actually human remains on-site, with claims that there are often based on local lore. Source: Anne Kivi/Cultural memorial register

Re-interring human remains currently buried at or near war memorials in Estonia is a job likely to take years, a defense ministry spokesperson said at a time when several such projects are either underway or under application.

The status of war memorials, war graves and other similar sites also relates to the extent to which it would cause disturbance – to the living and the dead – if remains and above-ground edifices are removed.

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine may or may not have given an added impetus to exhuming those who were buried at war memorials – certainly the head of the  National Heritage Board (Muinsuskaitseamet) says it has not - generally dating to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, while the task is complicated by the sensitive nature of the job – and other factors such as a lack of clarity in some cases as to whether there even are any human remains buried at a given site.

The War Graves Commission (Sõjahaudade komisjon ) advises the ministry on how to proceed I each case, though it is down to the ministry to make the decision.

Current law has it that if human remains are located at a war memorial, it is a matter for local government on whether to apply for their re-interment.

Siplane says the lead time from application, of which the ministry has received 15 so far with many more likely to come, to reburial, is at least a month.

One of the main considerations is whether a monument or site also includes whether it is of cultural value or not – a matter for the Heritage Protection Board or local government, and not the commission.

On site where work has already begun, at a former Soviet monument, is at Rakvere, Lääne County, where over 30 sets of remains have been discovered, while decisions to relocate remains have also been made for sites at Nõo, Tartu County, Võsu, Lääne-Viru County, Pärnu city and Emmaste, Hiiumaa.

On the other hand, while Tartu city was one of the first municipalities to call for the dismantling of a Soviet era monument and the re-interment of human remains buried there, this work has not been carried out yet – due to the need to collect more information on the status of the site, Siplane said.

The human remains buried there, not only Estonians and Russians, come from various nationalities and ethnicities, Siplane added, including Flemings, "Jews" and others.

"You have to know how to deal with them in a culturally sensitive way to ensure dignity," Siplane said

Where required, the relevant religious and national groups are contacted regarding the process.

Conversely, the local municipality in Türi, Järva County, has decided that a monument there does not interfere with local life, meaning the location can be considered as a suitable place for a final resting place.

Sometimes the issue simply concerns symbols or edifices regarded as inappropriate and which could be removed without disturbing all or any parties.

"The logic is that there are war victims who deserve respect and remembrance in any case and their graves must be marked with dignity. It is a matter of debate whether or not a marker adequately describes the historical events or if it disturbs the local population in some other way, " Siplane told ERR's radio news Thursday.

Even if the installation appears to glorify former occupying regimes, Siplane went on, it can still be removed with dignity.

Other installations to have been in focus recently include a dummy T-34 tank near the eastern border town of Narva - churning out such replicas was somewhat of a cottage industry in the Soviet Union - and a memorial near Pärnu which was mysteriously removed overnight, back in May, and where it is not clear whether human remains were buried or not.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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