Immersed in Russia

On April 10, 1997, twenty-five years ago, I walked out of Infant Home #2, an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

In my arms was my new daughter, a beautiful 3-year-old girl with big brown eyes. She was born Tatyana Kashtakova, and from that day forward, she was Jessica Callaghan.

Adopting a child is a life-changing event. But adopting a child from Russia in 1997 was one heck of an experience.

The Soviet Union had fallen apart in 1991. Six years later, the Russian society was still in shambles.

Boris Yeltsin was President, and Vladimir Putin was in charge of his Security Council. Moscow seemed okay, but the rest of the country was like walking into a wild west movie where strongmen and thugs ruled the streets.

My Russian adoption facilitator, Yuri, met me at customs in the Moscow airport and asked me to go back to the duty-free store and buy two boxes of chocolates and two large bottles of Jack Daniels.

I asked why and he said, “Gifts. We will need them.”

We took an overnight train to Nizhny Novgorod. That’s where the need for gifts became apparent.

The chocolates went to the administrators at the local passport office, who provided my daughter with a passport and exit visa. The liquor went to the judge, who had to sign off on the adoption.

I spent six weeks staying in a very stark apartment. There were hundreds of identical buildings in the city, and I later learned that German POWs had built them during WWII.

The best word to describe the experience is surreal. I could fill ten newsletters with the tales of that trip, but the main point I want to emphasize was how I felt immersed in Russian society.

By 1997, I had traveled to roughly half a dozen countries. Nowhere had felt as foreign as Russia. The Russians looked like us, but everything else about the society felt like I’d been transported to another planet.

For example, do you remember how when the pandemic hit in 2020, many of the stores were picked clean? It was a strange experience for Americans.

In 1997, Russian stores were like that all the time. They had been waiting for Moscow to send supplies for six years, but nothing came. Yet people still stood in line every day, hoping.

Traveling to Russia and being immersed in their culture was an experience I’ll never forget.

There is a big difference between observing an experience and being immersed in one.

Watching football on TV is an example of observing an experience.

Going to the stadium immerses you in the experience somewhat. Standing on the sidelines immerses you more. But, if you step onto the field and play the game, you are fully immersed.

Which one do you think has the most long-term impact, observed or immersed?


Last summer, one of the hottest tickets around the country was the touring “Van Gogh Exhibition: The Immersive Experience.”

A very popular group outing for Millenials and Gen Xers is to spend time at an “Escape Room,” a completely immersive experience.

When you are thinking about improving the experience someone has at your funeral home, consider how you can immerse them in the experience.

One of the successful strategies I’ve used multiple times is to create a Memories Room at the funeral home. It’s a room that you enter, are immersed in a life story, and then invited to participate by recording your memories of the deceased.

You could also go high-tech and create a room surrounded by multi-media displays that immerse guests in the life story.

Funerals are often immersive for the immediate family but are observed by the guests. I believe that funerals of the future will immerse all attendees in the life story. The key is to consider what you want people to feel when immersed because funerals aren’t about entertainment.

Question: What do people crave the most in our modern society?

Answer: Feeling connected to each other.

Can an immersive funeral experience create that feeling? Absolutely!

These days, a common concern for funeral home professionals involves explaining the value of a funeral to families. I believe a better idea is to create funerals that families value without explanation.

The best way to do that is to immerse them in the story of a lifetime and show them how we are all connected.

Until next time


PS: My daughter was one of 600 children in Infant Home #2. There were 13 identical orphanages in that city. 600×13 = 7,800 abandoned children in one city. That’s what happens when a society collapses.

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