Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his most famous works while studying at the Moscow Conservatory. His music reflects the best of the Russian Romantic tradition. A three-bar Russian Orthodox cross is on his tombstone. He is buried in the Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
And seventy-three years after he was laid to rest in the United States, Russia wants him back.
The Russian cultural minister claims that the United States is declaring Rachmaninoff’s legacy as its own and that his body should be exhumed and returned to his homeland. The composer’s great-great-granddaughter refuses. Rachmaninoff came to the United States in 1917 in self-imposed political exile; he died in the United States; his wife and daughter are buried next to him; and he became an American citizen eight weeks before he died. His great-great-granddaughter wonders, “After fleeing from one country to the next in life, as he did, is it too much to ask that he be allowed to rest in peace with his family?”
So, where will Rachmaninoff rest in eternal peace, and who gets to decide? The New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation law §1510(e) applies to Kenisco Cemetery. Pursuant to N-PCL §1510(e), a body may be disinterred upon consent of the cemetery corporation, the owners of the lot, and of the surviving wife, husband, children, if of full age, and parents of the deceased. This would appear to rule out the great-great-granddaughter’s authority in the matter, but in fact the court has applied a broader interpretation of allowable kinship in these cases. In the case In Re Ellman, 152 Misc.2d 656, 658(1991), the court allowed a sibling to petition for disinterment and as the closest surviving relative, the sibling had standing to represent the wishes of the decedent. The court also noted that the feelings of the sole surviving next of kin be taken into consideration. Id. Further, the court was clear that the only issue is whether there exists a good reason for the court to exercise its “benevolent discretion” to permit the disruption of “the quiet of [decedent’s] grave.” Id. at 659.
There is disagreement as to whether Rachmaninoff personally chose his place of final resting. However, the great-great granddaughter is likely to prevail if disinterment is pursued. She is adamant that Rachmaninoff should be with his family and in his adopted homeland for eternity—or until the issue arises for the next generation.