The custom of burial in church came to Russia from Byzantium where those 'who did not die even after death' – tsars, high officials, and patriarchs – were thus honoured. The tradition of building temples of grand princes as burial places for representatives of one dynasty was based on this custom. Family or dynastic burial places, as a rule, were dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who accompanied the souls of the deceased to the realm of dead, according to Christian mythology. The Archangel Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin is such a kind of family necropolis. Here, representatives of the ruling Moscow dynasties – Riurik and Romanov – were buried.

The Archangel Cathedral became the first burial place for grand princes during the time of Ivan Kalita. But by the early 16th century the temple was so overloaded with tombs that Ivan III decided to destroy his great grandfather's burial place and build a new one, more spacious, so that it could accommodate not only the twenty-three old coffins, but also the 'new coming ones'. Before launching activities the grand prince ordered to transfer the white-stone sarcophagi of ancestors from the cathedral to the Church of St John Climacus in order to avoid causing damage to any tomb.

Interior of the cathedralInterior of the cathedralInterior of the cathedralRomanov tombs by the north-eastern pillar

Four years later the stone tombs of ancestors were brought back and put on the predetermined places. But the first tomb placed in the cathedral was that of its founder, 'sovereign of all Russia' Ivan III who died on 27 October 1505.

As of the 14th century, the burial place of the Moscow grand princes' family implied the idea of reconciliation and concord for the sake of Russia's unity under the direction of Moscow. Here, irreconcilable enemies fiercely fighting with each other in civil wars found eternal rest side by side.

The tombs of the Riurikid princes are located along cathedral’s walls in a definite order. Grand princes of Moscow are buried along the southern wall; appanage princes, close relatives of grand princes – along the western wall; princes fallen into disgrace or assassinated – along the northern wall. Such are the tombs of princes Vladimir Andreevich Staritsky and his son Vasily, the victims of oprichnina policy of Ivan the Terrible. The christened representatives of the Tatar nobility at the Russian court are buried by the north- and south-western walls.

The burials were executed in white-stone sarcophagi, which were put down into the ground under the floor. Over them brick tombs with white tombstones decorated with delicate fretted flower ornament and epitaphs in Slavonic ligature were installed. Early in the 20th century the tombs were placed in brass and glass cases with superimposed crosses and inscriptions. But the inscriptions were made with mistakes: appanage princes were called great, and in some cases the wrong death dates were given. A total of fifty-six burials are placed under forty-five tombs and two memorial tombstones.