In "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," what is implied in Tolstoy's calling the colleagues not friends, but "nearest acquaintances"?
Tolstoy's choice of words in this case illustrates the theme of alienation that is maintained throughout the story. Though Tolstoy is not often considered an existentialist writer, he anticipated the existentialist movement and other modernist trends that were soon to be developed in the literary world.
In spite of the somewhat negative portrayals of Ivan Ilyich's coworkers, probably anyone, even the best of us, who has attended a funeral has experienced the unavoidable awkwardness of these occasions. So to a degree, they should be given a "pass." The overall point, however, that Tolstoy seems to make in the funeral scene and throughout the book is that human beings who are not immediately facing death act as if they are somehow exempt from it. Though death is the one certainty in this world, it's the hardest to accept and to believe in unless we're on the verge of it. Ivan Ilyich is the one person in the novella who has to face this existential issue. The associates, though they, like all of us, have merely been given a temporary reprieve, act as if their exemption from death is somehow a permanent thing. And this shows their remoteness from Ivan Ilyich, their lack of connection to him.
The lack of empathy from his associates during the funeral has an analogue in the behavior of Ivan Ilyich's wife and daughter after he returns from the doctor and begins to tell them what the examination has revealed. They seem uninterested, remote, and are more concerned about the shopping they are about to do. When they leave, Ivan Ilyich is left alone, isolated, to brood about his illness without any support from the family. The doctor, also, when he comes to the house, does not show much of a good bedside manner. Ivan Ilyich has been plunged into a world of isolation in which he must deal with excruciating physical pain, as well as mental suffering, on his own. He finds himself a stranger in his own world.
The isolation becomes complete during his final three days, when Ivan Ilyich is screaming in agony. He is still alive but cut off completely from all the humans on earth, like Jesus during the three days between crucifixion and resurrection. When we look back on his life as it has been shown to us, and sum it up, we must ask, "What was the point of it all?" Tolstoy's answer seems to be that the goal of life is, of course, the endpoint of Ivan Ilyich's journey: death.