In 1982, a year after William Saroyan’s death on May 18, a Moscow airport was filled with solemn chaos as members of the Writers Union of Armenia prepared to receive the precious ashes of the great Armenian American writer.
Led by playwrights Aramashot Papayan and Perch Zeytuntsyan, a select group of writers made the journey from Armenia to Russia to receive the urn of Saroyan and bring it back to the city of Yerevan for its interment. The other half of Saroyan’s ashes were buried in his hometown of Fresno, California, 20 years after his death.
“I felt this was a really heavy responsibility, to take this man’s ashes to Armenia,” said the editor-in-chief of the Armenian Observer, Osheen Keshishian, during a 1991 interview for Armenian International Magazine. “We were worried that the urn was going to be lost or stolen. We stayed overnight in Moscow, and I slept with the urn under my bed.”
During the period of the Soviet Union, foreign visitors had to fly into Moscow, which was the capital of the Soviet government, to be searched and granted access, as free travel in and out of the USSR was banned without express permission. For this reason, bringing Saroyan’s urn to its final resting place in Armenia was a difficult journey.
Keshishian was one of three men assisting in transporting Saroyan’s ashes from California to Armenia. They traveled from the United States to Canada, making their way then to Moscow before finally landing with the sealed metal urn in Yerevan.
According to a report by Tony Halpin for the 1991 My Name is Bill issue of Armenian International Magazine, more than 10,000 people had gathered at the airport in Yerevan in anticipation of their arrival. Due to heavy rain and hail, their flight was delayed six hours, dwindling the crowd down to 2,000 people.
Upon his arrival in Yerevan, Keshishian presented the urn to Vardges Petrosyan, the Writers Union president. Writers began to gather around, paying their respects and momentarily holding the urn before passing it on to the next person.
“They just wanted to handle it for a second,” said Keshishian. “Some people started to cry. Some people were in shock. It was an unbelievable scene.”
The urn was then transported by motorcade to the Writer’s Union building as hundreds of people outside of the airport watched.
On May 29, 1982, the burial of Saroyan’s ashes was held at Komitas Pantheon, which is the burial site for Armenia’s greatest intellectuals and artists. Approximately 50,000 people were in attendance. Even the former Soviet Armenian president, Karen Demerdjian, had flown in from Moscow just for the funeral and flew back to Russia immediately after.
Hundreds of Armenians laid flowers and wreaths at Saroyan’s gravesite, flooding a portion of the pantheon.
“They loved him because he was down-to-earth,” said Keshishian.
My great-grandfather Aramashot Papayan was deeply affected by the loss of Saroyan; he considered Saroyan a dear friend and his brother from Bitlis. It was a deep honor for him to be the leading writer, along with Perch Zeytuntsyan, who flew to Moscow to retrieve Saroyan’s ashes. But he never bragged about being part of the select few; it was a very personal and quiet experience for him.
“He [Papayan] was sad and talked about him a lot,” said my uncle Vahagn Papayan when I asked him about his grandfather’s reaction to Saroyan’s death. “I didn’t know about his flight to Moscow. I was less than 10. I think that was the first time I learned about Saroyan, and everyone was telling all these stories.”
Within several reports about Saroyan’s will, Saroyan had expressly stated that his heart should be transferred to Armenia, while the rest of his ashes were to remain in Fresno, California. He also had stated that if Bitlis was ever liberated from occupation, his ashes from Fresno should be transferred to his parents’ house, which according to stories passed down in my family, he had been able to locate due to the in-depth stories of Bitlis that Papayan’s mother Grap would share with him.
Forty-one years later, Armenians all over the world still mourn the loss of the great William Saroyan. He was an imaginative and larger-than-life novelist, playwright, short story writer and artist.
He truly carried Armenia in his heart wherever he went, seeking to bring the motherland recognition and respect on the global platform. As recompense for faithfully keeping his homeland in his heart, Armenia now carries the ashes of his heart within her arms, because whether metaphorically, or quite literally, his heart was, and still is, truly in the highlands.