In Bulgaria they hang dead people on trees, not to mention walls, doors and, in particular, on the gate to their former home. Not literally, you understand, although my daughter is inclined to believe otherwise. These necrologs are sheets of paper 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 forty 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 forty day period is the most important, after which they have a celebration as, according to ancient pagan tradition, this was when the soul departed for another world. After one year, a fresh tribute is pasted up and then at regular intervals for up to forty 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and I became somewhat morbidly fascinated, staring into the shadowy eyes of these set faces, often captured in a long out of date photograph.
On her first trip to Bulgaria, my then five year old 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 thirty six years old when she died, her happy smile frozen forever in time.
As well as necrologs, there are other Bulgarian customs associated with death that we Brits might do well to emulate. On our first night in Bulgaria one 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, 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.
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 B&B in Bulgaria. It is one of the happiest places I have ever stayed, her house a testament to her excellent taste. It goes without saying that her village is also a very special place.
This article was first published in Vagabond Magazine