GET BORN, GET DEAD

by Amanda Lees; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarian attitudes to dying are in sharp variance with the English way of doing it

funeral.jpg

In Bulgaria they hang dead people on trees, not to mention walls, doors and, in particular, on the gate of their former home. Not literally, you understand, although my five-year-old daughter is inclined to believe otherwise. These necrologs are sheets of paper each depicting the deceased and mostly set out in a standard format. The word is derived from the Greek necro meaning dead or death. Uniquely, the first of these paeans to the dead to be posted does not include a photograph, there being a set period of 40 days before it is deemed correct to include one.

In the funeral parlours of the towns and villages, necrologs may be obtained ready prepared. Set verses are available, with the bereaved simply having to supply a photograph. The 40 day period is the most important, after which they have a celebration as, according to ancient pagan tradition, this is when the soul departs for another world. After one year, a fresh tribute is pasted up and then at regular intervals for up to 40 years, each announcing how long it has been since the subject met their end. There is something enormously touching about these solemn notices, each commemorating a person's passing. As long as there is someone to remember, a life is honoured in this way.

The public posting of necrologs came about with the advent of the copying machine. Before that, death notices were printed in newspapers just as they are in Britain. I first came across the custom in Dobrich, where black and white faces fluttered from every spare wall and lamp post. Unable to read Cyrillic at the time, I wondered if there was a local election going on with an inordinate number of candidates. My Bulgarian agents, Chavdar and Milen, soon put me right and I became somewhat morbidly fascinated, staring into the shadowy eyes of these set faces, often captured in a long out of date photograph.

Death notices

Death notices

This past summer, on her first trip to Bulgaria, my daughter inherited my fascination. Now in better command of the language, I read out to her the names and dates of the dead. We marvelled at the magnificent moustache that adorned the upper lip of one gentleman in General Toshevo and gazed respectfully upon the grainy faces of the couple who had once inhabited a house along our lane. Saddest of all was a colourful example in Kavarna, neatly laminated and displaying the photograph of a young woman. She was only 36 years old when she died, her happy smile frozen forever in time.

In Britain we also have public memorials to our dead apart from gravestones or state monuments. These less ostentatious tributes exist in the form of dedicated park benches and sometimes trees, often situated where the deceased had enjoyed a certain ambience or view. Generally organised through the local council, such commemorative wooden benches display a plaque giving the name and dates of the deceased or have the information carved into them. There will usually be a few words to express how much the person loved that particular place along with other information the bereaved feel important. Quite often such phrases are surprisingly pithy, reflecting the dry wit that the British and the Bulgarians appear to share. I find these benches as fascinating as necrologs and cannot pass one by without reading the inscription.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near to my London house, are home to hundreds, some especially witty. My favourite is dedicated to a couple who are not even dead at all, but “still enjoy these gardens”! In fact, such is the growing popularity of the commemorative bench in Britain that their numbers have had to be restricted. This growth reflects a society where graveyards are overcrowded and cremations preferred by many. Six out of 10 Britons are now cremated and their ashes scattered, leaving their loved ones with no special spot to mourn them. A commemorative bench offers that opportunity while serving the needs of an increasingly secular nation.

Tombstones

With most people now dying in hospital in Britain, death itself has been stripped of many of its traditional ceremonies. This lack of contact with the dead and dying has paradoxically increased our fears of what is involved. Where once a body would at least be brought home before the funeral, now it is generally removed from the hospital mortuary straight to a funeral parlour. There it is put into a refrigerated unit until the body can be embalmed with the family's permission. Around 90 percent of bodies brought to funeral homes in Britain are embalmed, the deceased then dressed and made up ready for family or friends who may wish to pay their last respects. The body lies in a private viewing room in an open coffin and will be taken directly from the funeral parlour to the crematorium, church or cemetery, the coffin now sealed and usually accompanied by floral tributes and wreaths.

In multicultural Britain many faiths and cultures follow their own traditional customs. British Catholics and High Anglicans will generally have the deceased brought to church the day before the funeral where the coffin rests overnight before the altar or in a side chapel and a vigil will be held. In the old days, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, a boozy wake at home next to the coffin would take the place of a vigil, with stories of the deceased being exchanged as a well-lubricated celebration of their life. Nowadays the wake tends to be a more subdued affair that takes place after the funeral. Less colourful reminiscences are exchanged over cups of tea or perhaps a shot or two of whisky, purely for emotional sustenance of course.

Flowers should be put in coffins rather than vases

Flowers should be put in coffins rather than vases

Other funeral customs which have more or less died out include the stopping of clocks in the house at the moment of death and the covering of mirrors and closing of curtains. In some areas of Scotland, as is still the case in Bulgaria, cats were also banned from the house. I can still just about remember my Scottish grandfather being brought back to a house plunged into literal gloom, his open coffin being placed in what had been his bedroom. The worst of it was my god-fearing grandmother's insistence that we “bairns” kneel at the side of his coffin to say a prayer for his soul. The urge to peek was almost overwhelming, but thankfully superseded by the fear of what I might see.

Had we kept hold of the old Victorian customs in Britain, where death usually occurred within the home, I might not have been quite as afraid of something as natural or as inevitable. It is something Bulgarians still seem to handle well, certainly within the villages. On our first night in Bulgaria last summer we stayed near Varna with an English woman, Marion, whose husband Graham had passed away barely four months before. Alone in the middle of the night when Graham died, Marion called on her Bulgarian neighbours for assistance. With immense kindness and tact, they rose to the task.

Graham's body was prepared and laid out in his coffin while one by one the villagers came to pay their respects, bringing flowers which Marion, being English, arranged in a vase. Unbeknownst to her, the flowers were actually supposed to be placed in the coffin and it was only when a close friend and neighbour gently put her right that she realised her mistake. As well as bringing flowers and their heartfelt sympathy, the villagers also insisted Marion must not be left alone and when the day came for the funeral a number of local men volunteered to help carry Graham to his final resting place.

Sofia Central Cemetery is a park gem of its own

Sofia Central Cemetery is a park gem of its own

Unfortunately, Graham was rather tall and his coffin too long to make it horizontally through the front door. There was much sorrowful hand-wringing until the stalwart Marion suggested they simply stand it on one end and carry Graham out upright. As she told us this story, tears of laughter sprang to her eyes. According to Marion, Graham would have found the whole thing hilarious. What might have been a nightmare scenario was alleviated by the overwhelming kindness of everyone concerned. Marion is carrying on the dream she and Graham had of running a glorious B&B/self-catering establishment in Bulgaria. It is one of the happiest places I have ever stayed and her house a testament to her excellent taste. It goes without saying that her village, Kumanovo, is also a very special place.

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