Two gravediggers and a funeral director said nothing as Tamara Oulanova grabbed a hammer from her bag, knelt on the frozen ground and nailed the purple felt back into place on her son’s wooden coffin.
The moment belonged to Oulanova, a 56-year-old Russian immigrant. After 10 years and $13,000, she had finally exhumed her son’s body from Russian soil, escorted it to America and laid it to rest in a Minneapolis cemetery on a bitterly cold March day. The funeral was the culmination of a tale that encompassed war, corruption, extortion and a mother’s never-ending love for her son. But mostly it’s a story about Oulanova’s gumption and a singular determination aided by the kindness of strangers.
“This is a perfect story,” said William Lombardo, a New York funeral-home owner who came to Oulanova’s rescue when her son’s body was stuck at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “She couldn’t get her son home and that’s absurd in this day and age. … But it’s a good story for America because people like us who never met this woman came to help. … When you hear her story, it’s so troubling.”
It began when Oulanova’s son was brutally beaten in a Croatian refugee camp. The single mother and son had found their way from Russia to Croatia in search of a better life. Oulanova was 25 when her husband died, leaving her to raise her 5-year-old son alone. Four years later, her brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Oulanova holds no love for her mother country and its government.
“I dreamed of a better place,” she said.
Her son told her America would be that place. Oulanova would go first, her son was to follow. “He said, ‘Mama, I looked very carefully on the Internet for information about U.S.A. and it’s a very nice country. You will love this country.”
So on a summer day in 2000, Oulanova reluctantly left her son, Alexey Oulanov, to sleep in while she went to a U.S. Embassy to fill out the visa paperwork. When she returned to their refugee camp, she learned Oulanova and a woman had been beaten. He had been hit in the back of the head with a metal pipe.
Alexey Oulanov survived, but lived the rest of his life in constant pain.
“I didn’t want to leave for America,” Oulanova said. “But everyone said, ‘Tamara, you must be smart. You must go to the U.S. and then get your son. American doctors can help him.”
So months later, Oulanova arrived in Minneapolis, instantly falling in love with her newly adopted country and working tirelessly to bring her injured son to the United States.
“He was slowly dying,” Oulanova said.
Alexey then left Croatia for home — Russia. “He told me, ‘I very much love Russia. I want to walk on Russian ground and then I can die.’ ” Oulanova returned to Russia to be with her son. “I thought I could help him,” she said. But Alexey Oulanov died Dec. 1, 2003. He was 26.
Two years later, his visa finally arrived at his mother’s Russian apartment. Oulanova was more determined than ever to return to the United States, where she would bury her son. She filed documents, made calls, paid money and landed back in Minneapolis in October 2011 in search of a place to bury her son.
“She told me her story and I could hardly believe it,” said Robert Hunt, part owner of Billman-Hunt Funeral Chapel. When the time came, he promised to pick up her son’s body from the airport and help with the burial. “I never really believed it would happen. I didn’t think she could come up with the money. I knew she wanted to, but I figured she just wanted to get it off her chest that she wanted to do this. Lots of people come here and say they want to do things but they never do.”
But Oulanova’s thin, 5-foot-6 frame belies her resolve and resourcefulness. “She doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer,” Hunt said.
She won the battle to get money and documents in hand to exhume her son’s body and ship it to the United States. But the company hired for the job quit before they finished and thieves ran off with all her money and travel documents. Three months later, she scrounged up more money and replaced the stolen documents needed to begin her son’s journey to Minnesota.
But in Russia, she was only given passage to New York. And that’s where Lombardo, the New York funeral director, found himself face-to-face with a diminutive woman, dressed in black from head to toe and possessed of a steely will, if little else. “It was just her, her cat, a piece of luggage and what she had on her back.”
Her son’s body had hit a dead end in New York, stranded without the right paperwork to get through customs and on a flight to Minnesota. In search of help, an airline employee rousted Lombardo, who spent the night filling out the necessary papers and making travel arrangements to get Oulanova and her son on an 8:30 a.m. flight to Minneapolis late last week.
On Tuesday, with a biting wind swirling through St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral Cemetery, Oulanova’s long, slender fingers smoothed the purple felt fabric covering her son’s coffin. She taped an Orthodox crucifix onto the coffin, then added a plaque with her son’s portrait on it. She covered it all with a floral flannel blanket.
The handful of people whom Oulanova had roped into her decade-long quest waited patiently. There was Mary Johnson, who had befriended Oulanova just weeks after she arrived in Minneapolis the first time in 2000. “She looked like she needed a ride,” Johnson said. And there was Father Andrew Morbey, a priest at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis, who said a few prayers. Hunt was there along with the grave diggers.
Few of them would be surprised to learn that she cajoled her way into JFK’s restricted cargo area to ensure the box carrying her son’s body was OK. Or that she stood on crates, peeking into the funeral home’s garage to ensure her son’s body had been moved to the cooler. Or that she shoveled the dirt back into the grave herself rather than leave it for workers who would come later.
But as the coffin was lowered into the grave, Oulanova’s stoicism gave way to tears. But only briefly.
“Now I am very happy,” Oulanova said. “The soul of my son has peace. Now I have peace.”