The field adjoining the old graveyard here was a panorama of gaping holes Monday, some so wide they were really pits large enough to hold three or more bodies from one family.
From early morning, hundreds of local volunteers and soldiers had dug this wet, stony ground. The rows of graves extended nearly 200 yards, and still more will need to be dug for Tuesday and the day after and the day after, as the last of the dead from School No. 1 are finally identified.
By late morning, the funeral processions were arriving one after another, winding their way through the chaotic traffic and milling pedestrians under a dark sky that poured rain without pause. The coffins, some open, some closed, were hoisted onto the shoulders of grim-faced men who fought to find their footing in a sea of muck.
The women followed next, wailing laments. The sounds of grief from different parts of the cemetery blended into one as sometimes four or five people were put to rest at the same time.
Russian officials revised the death toll Monday down to 334, including 156 children. But close to 200 people remained missing, out of the total number of hostages that officials now say was 1,180. Concerning the hostage takers, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said there were a total of 32, 31 of whom were killed and one -- shown Sunday on state television -- who was arrested.
More than 100 people were buried in the Beslan field Monday, Christians and Muslims alike, and there weren't enough priests or imams. And so, the final words of remembrance and farewell were often uttered by relatives, family elders perhaps, who stood over the coffins and addressed the mourners crowding around.
"You had dreams, Natashenka, you had dreams," said Vladimir Povomaryov, before the body of Natalia Rudenok, an art teacher at School No. 1, was lowered into a grave lined with red brick, in the local tradition.
"You are all martyrs. Our hearts ache for you."
And then the grieving touched the corpse one last time -- a final, faint touch, or a grasp that didn't want to let go.
The bodies came from their homes in Beslan where, on Monday morning, priests went from door to door to say hasty prayers over the corpses before moving on to the next afflicted family. The coffins were then loaded onto the backs of trucks and vans for the short but congested trip to the edge of town.
In one five-minute period, at about 2:30 p.m., 14 coffins arrived in succession, and then each funeral party broke away to its piece of earth denoted by wooden makers and pieces of paper bearing the names of the dead. Some of the victims were visible until these last moments: a woman, her red-colored hair brushed back and parted over her blackening face; a young man in a Sunday suit; a shrouded child.
Sveta Aylyarova, a 6-year-old first-grader, arrived in an open coffin, its top carried separately by six men. Her body was veiled in lace, and atop her legs was her pink teddy bear.
"She was a beautiful, smart little girl," said Khazbi Aylyarov, the oldest relative standing in front of the coffin, restraining his grief so he could get the words out.
And then the coffins were shuttered with final, haunting bangs before they were placed in the red-bricked holes. Pieces of concrete were lowered on top before dirt was shoveled into the hole by young men, rain streaming down their faces.
Some graves, like that of the Kozyrevs, where Alla, Timur and Elina, mother, son and daughter, were buried side by side, were so large that a dump truck had to back up to the hole and tip a load of dirt on the coffins.
"It is our blood here," said Elbrus Bulayev, a worker at a local vodka distillery who spent the morning digging graves under a hard rain. "The sky is crying."
And then, in what many people seemed to take as shocking insensitivity, the bereavement was interrupted by political speeches that bellowed across the open ground from a podium set up 50 yards from the graves. All morning, a group of people, mostly local officials, had waited for the arrival of the Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia, the region where the attack took place, and other dignitaries.
President Vladimir Putin did not attend, but he was shown at a televised meeting in the Kremlin with several of his ministers. "In spirit and in our hearts, we are all there today, in North Ossetia, in Beslan," he said before leading the group in a minute of silence.
After days of silence from Russia's political leaders about the biggest crisis of Putin's nearly five years in power, several opposition politicians spoke out strongly Monday against the government's handling of the siege and demanded a full explanation.
The Motherland party, founded last year and elected to parliament with tacit Kremlin backing, issued an official statement demanding that the entire government resign "because of their negligence that resulted in numerous civilian victims." The party was joined at the other end of the political spectrum by a Western-oriented liberal, Irina Khakamada, in calling for an independent investigation of how the hostages were taken at School No. 1.
Khakamada, who ran against Putin in the March presidential election, also criticized him for blaming international terrorism for the Beslan crisis. "It would be incorrect to reduce the whole thing to international terrorism waging a war on this country," she said, "because our weakness in the fight against that evil has domestic causes."
But criticism of the government, even from nominally independent outlets in the news media, has become even more difficult in the wake of the Beslan tragedy. On Monday, Raf Shakirov, the influential editor of the newspaper Izvestia, said he had been forced to resign as a result of the paper's Saturday edition. It featured huge pictures of child victims and accounts at variance with the official version of events.
As despairing families continued to put loved ones into the ground, loudspeakers broadcast Dzasokhov's voice as he thanked the mayor of Moscow and the governor of St. Petersburg, among others, for coming to North Ossetia to express their condolences. He continued sonorously with a plea for unity.
"The bosses want to be heard," said Valery Dzarukayev, contemptuously, as the speech wafted across the fresh graves.
"He should resign," said a woman, standing by the graves of Dzurussa Bazrova, 14, and Sasha Urosov, 9, which were being filled in as Dzasokhov spoke. Still other corteges were arriving as the speech continued to boom from the loudspeakers. "They should all be fired."
But mourners, for the most part, kept their disdain in check and simply voted with their feet by leaving the graveyard without turning their heads to the nearby rally.
By early evening, the field was quiet. But more graves were being dug.
"We will work until dark," Bulayev said. "There are many more to bury."
Glasser reported from Moscow.