LONDON – Huddled against the December chill, the wife and young son of Alexander Litvinenko led a small crowd of mourners today at a private London funeral while confusion surrounded his deathbed conversion to Islam.
Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and separatist Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, two of the Kremlin’s most outspoken exiled critics, were among the six pallbearers who lowered Litvinenko into his grave at Highgate cemetery in north London.
He was laid to rest two weeks after dying from radiation poisoning in a case that has revived echoes of the Cold War and raised tensions between London and Moscow.
Russia strongly denies Litvinenko’s deathbed accusation that the Kremlin ordered him killed, and announced on the day of the funeral that it was opening its own murder inquiry, in parallel with a Scotland Yard police investigation which has taken London detectives to Moscow.
Litvinenko’s father Walter spoke emotionally at the gravesite and an Imam then performed Muslim rites.
But there was controversy to the very end over Litvinenko’s reported conversion to Islam shortly before his death.
“He asked to be buried in accordance with Muslim traditions and customs,” Chechen rebel Zakayev, himself a Muslim, told Reuters on the eve of the funeral.
He said Litvinenko was disillusioned with the Russian Orthodox Church because, as a former security agent, he had seen how some priests collaborated with the KGB secret police by passing on details of churchgoers’ confessions.
But another friend of Litvinenko, Alexander Goldfarb, said he had “strong reservations” about the deathbed conversion and that the gravesite Muslim prayers were against the wishes of the dead man’s widow, Marina.
“It was supposed to be a non-religious, non-denominational ceremony according to the wishes of the widow,” Goldfarb said, adding that Marina had allowed the rites to go ahead to avoid an “unseemly situation”.
Earlier, some of the mourners attended noon prayers at London’s central mosque.
“Thank you to my son’s brothers in faith that they remember him and pray for him,” Walter Litvinenko said.
At the cemetery, Marina Litvinenko and the couple’s 12-year-old son Anatoly led about 50 mourners to the gravesite on a bleak, wet afternoon.
The man was brought up under Soviet Communism, became a state security agent then later turned into a fierce Kremlin critic. He was buried a few hundred yards (metres) from Communist founder Karl Marx.
It was a last strange twist for a man whose life, and death, are still full of unanswered questions.