In Antimovo locals sing their requiems and carve their tombstones while they're still alive
When one of the three major holidays for remembering the dead rolls around, Bulgarians are transformed – from unapologetic atheists and lazy Eastern Orthodox believers to outright pagans.
Bulgarian celebrations of the major All Souls' Days – the Saturdays before the feast of Archangel Michael, Lent and Pentecost – seem decidedly heathen, no matter how you look at them. People go to cemeteries. They clean down their relatives' tombs. They light candles and pour wine over the graves in the form of a cross. Then they hand out small plastic trays to their loved ones and random passers-by, murmuring "For God's forgiveness." The recipients respond with "May God forgive" and wander off with their goodies – a plastic cup full of boiled wheat sprinkled with powdered sugar, candy, pastries and a small roll.
The clergy claims that this ritual is symbolic. Wheat must be scattered on the earth so that the land should be reborn on the following spring – the boiled wheat in the cup reminds the living to take care of their immortal souls. However, rank-and-file Bulgarians exchange food "For God's forgiveness" for another reason: They believe it "feeds" the soul of the dead person, who on these days hovers somewhere near the grave.
There are even stranger rites and customs in Bulgaria. In six Wallachian villages near Vidin – Antimovo, Pokrayna, Koshava, Gomatartsi, Kutovo and Slanotran – people have taken things much further. They dig their own graves and make their tombstones while they're still alive. The headstones include everything, their names, pictures and birth dates. What's missing is the date of death.
Floariya Marinova is in her 70s and is one of Antimovo's living dead. Both she and her husband ordered their tombstones more than a decade ago, because "we didn't want to burden our children with the expense. That's why we're getting ready for death while we're still alive.
In their case, the precaution proved unnecessary: their son died in a car accident and their daughter-in-law from an illness. "If someone dies unexpectedly, it's terrible. My son Romil's grave went a whole year without a headstone. I only relaxed when we finally got one," said Floariya.
In Antimovo, death is a serious business – much more serious than births, weddings or other "frivolous" worldly events. There's even a local saying – "for the cost of one funeral you can have two weddings." And death is really celebrated like a wedding. On Easter, close friends and relatives of those who have died in the past year bake 300 rolls and give them out at church in their loved one's memory. Then they go to the big Easter horo, or dance, and do something you might see at weddings – they give out presents. If the deceased was a woman, they distribute handkerchiefs and aprons, if it was man, undershirts and socks. On St Peter's Day, 29 June, they prepare an extravagant feast in memory of the deceased. The most important rituals take place on pomeni, or rituals marking the 40th day after death. All Orthodox Bulgarians strictly observe this tradition, since they believe that on this day the deceased person's soul leaves the earth and bids farewell to the living.
In Antimovo, however, they celebrate the 40th day after their deaths while they are still alive.
This tradition gained popularity shortly after the beginning of the Transition. Like a birthday party, it usually is quite festive – apart from the complicated ritual.
Severina and Boyan Mitovi's joint pomen, or memorial service day, from a few years ago is a good example. They set up two new, separate tables, with only one chair each and with carpets underneath. They served an odd number of dishes – meatballs, chicken, salads, cakes and drinks. On the carpet they laid out all the basic things a person needs: a wash basin, a bucket, towels, a blanket, a mirror, as well as shaving supplies for Boyan. They gave all that and a little cash and new clothes to a girl who carried out the most important part of the ritual. She drew 40 buckets of water for each of them out of the "fountain of the dead" and took them to all the neighbours. Then she distributed the food from the tables. The priest read a prayer for health – to put off the moment of actual death. Then everyone ate, drank and had a good time. Only Severina and Boyan remained hungry and thirsty, as they were the ones being commemorated.
Celebrating pomeni and making tombstones while still in the earthly world is a question of prestige. Only the poorest of the poor forgo it, while the others look forward to it. "Four or five years ago my wife said: 'C'mon, we need to take care of ourselves properly.' So we had both headstones made for 400 leva," explains Lyuben Enchev. During the Socialist era, he was the treasurer of the local TKZS, or collective farm. Now his main job is looking after his future grave from time to time.
Antimovo locals' ultra-preparedness for the afterlife sometimes has curious consequences. "My father died eight years after we made his tombstone," recalls Metodi Dimitrov, who also has his own gravestone ready. "But we had got so used to his tombstone the way it was that we still haven't added the date of his death."
The cemetery lies a few metres beyond the village, in the enticing shade of several large walnut trees. Antimovo has some 300 houses – and twice as many graves. No one bothers buying a plot – locals simply go and measure out the space they need, marking it off with stakes.
Milozina and Svetlozar Ilievi recently staked out their family plot. "When we saw that everyone else was marking off plots, we decided that we should get ours ready, too. Our children were angry with us at first, telling us, "How can you make such fools out of yourselves, acting as if we wouldn't take care of you when the time comes!" Svetlozar isn't too happy with it, either. It's close to the road and he passes by the spot every day with his cows. "I kept saying that I wouldn't like seeing my own grave. I also have to go by the place on my way to our vineyards." However, his wife persuaded him using two ironclad arguments: They wouldn't put their photographs on the tombstones yet and by preparing for their own deaths they would make things easier on their children.
Conversations with living grave owners inevitably lead to the subject of their children. Following the Bulgarian tradition that parents should look after their children's material comfort as much as possible, they don't want to trouble their descendants, even after death. This veneer of parental concern, however, hides the uncertainty of lonely people.
As Iliya Marinov explained, "Our children and grandchildren are in Spain. Even if they are able to come back when my time comes, it's no big deal – I've already taken care of everything."
The Mitrovi's only son is a circus performer in Las Vegas. Both his daughters live with their mother in the UK. Severina and Boyan live alone in a large house with a huge garden. In their bedroom they have prepared everything necessary for their own funerals: linens, blankets for the body to lie on in the coffin, kerchiefs and shawls as gifts for guests, and a silver cross. Severina has very detailed instructions about which clothes she should be buried in – depending on how old she is when she dies. "I'm preparing for death, but I don't think about it. I dream about how someday my granddaughters will come to live here. English people already own four or five houses in Antimovo."
Antimovo residents' preparations for death trouble the local priest. "It isn't right to dig graves and hold memorial services while people are still alive," says Father Nikolay. "But people in the region have got used to it and want to do it." Bishop Dometiyan was against the practice, but locals stubbornly refused to give it up. Otherwise, they are devout and community-minded people. Father Nikolay wrote a history of the village and sold all 150 copies of the book. He believes the village was named after Antim I, the first Bulgarian bishop after the re-establishment of the independent Bulgarian Church in 1870. Under Ottoman rule, the village was named Shef. Later Communists renamed it Zlaten rog, or Golden Horn.
Yon Florov is the most important person in the village of the living dead. He is the man who makes tombstones. Now in his 80s, Yon has been practising his trade since childhood. He has already made tombstones for both his wives and two of his sons. Only one of his sons is still alive.
He has also made his own tombstone. It is quite large, double-sided, and has space for three pictures – two of Yon and one of one of his wives. He still hasn't decided which wife will receive that honour. However, he has more pressing things to worry about – his remaining son is a bachelor. "I've built two houses with money from making gravestones; I have a car. If only I could find a daughter-in-law! She'd live a good life here. I'd even make her a gravestone!"
MEANWHILE, IN THE UK
The financial crisis has caused some macabre side effects in Britain where undertakers have stopped burying hundreds of bodies due to lack of funds, threatening to bring on a new "Winter of Discontent" to the UK, according to The Daily Mail.
The reason for this is that low-income families do not have the cash to cover funeral costs for their relatives, and government assistance in such cases can take up to two-three months.
In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions' Social Fund disburses money for burials of low-income citizens. Previously, undertakers took out loans from banks to avoid problems arising from the bureaucratic payment lag. Funds from the state budget were then used to pay off the undertakers' debts.
Given the current credit crisis, however, most financial institutions are extremely short on funds, making loans difficult to come by, and this leaves funeral homes without the money to cover their costs.
The "Winter of Discontent" is an expression Britons use to describe the winter of 1978–1979. Workers from many sectors of the economy staged massive strikes and forced the Labour Party to call an early election, which brought the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher to power. Due to the widespread strikes, garbage piled up in the streets and dead bodies were stored in unused factories.