Saturday, March 13, 2010


It is only a twelve mile drive to the village of Kochevo outside Plovdiv, but it was a step back in time of about 60 or more years. Yesterday we went to the burial of Krum’s father.

As with most new situations we find ourselves in, we knew little before we left. We did know that we should buy individual flowers in an even number. Odd numbers are for happy occasions. We were surprised when the shop lady would not wrap them as they usually do. They needed to remain loose. We weren’t sure why.

We raced with Ivan (Mike’s boss) to the village and were one of the last to arrive at the family home.  Krum’s dad Yanko was being waked in the living room before burial. A quick hug with Krum, his wife and his brother and we were escorted into the living room to pay our respects. The small wooden coffin was open and lying atop the frail body were all the loose flowers. We added ours. We stepped back outside, spoke for a few minutes with a friend and with Krum’s mother. While we were doing this by the side door, the still open casket was being taken out the living room window, to the waiting hearse…..a red commercial type van with a hatch back. The coffin was slipped in, the water jugs of additional flowers and a wreath were tucked in next to it. Everyone gathered behind the van and waited a few minutes while the family ran around attending to last minute details…..finding a rope, putting things in bags, filling buckets with water and other things leaving us wondering why?

At last all were ready and the procession to the cemetery on the other side of town was lead by an Orthodox priest and a friend carrying a black hand made wooden cross with Yanko’s name and age sketched in white paint.  The van with both the hatch and coffin still open followed next. The family and some friends walked through the muddy street immediately behind the van. Others retreated to a waiting bus or cars on the dry pavement for the short drive to the cemetery.

The coffin was maneuvered with difficulty through the snow and slop to the open grave site. It was laid to rest on the edge of the grave. Heaped high on the other side was the freshly dug dirt. Everyone gathered around for the service. There were blessing and prayers by the priest, an anointing with oil of Yanko’s hands and the symbolic placing of dirt onto the body. A eulogy was read by a friend. For the final farewell by the immediate family, each member came forward and cupped Yanko’s face in their hands. The final symbolic gesture of pouring a cup of ashes over Yanko by the priest was completed. A white sheet was drawn over his face, and a blanket brought up and wrapped around his body from within. This left him ready for the final resting. The cemetery crew came forward, the smaller of the two dropping down into the grave. The mysterious rope was thread under the front of the coffin. Still open it was lowered to rest. Two plastic bags, one larger than the other and a cloth bag from family members were added to the grave. I wondered if like the Egyptian pharos, he was being sent to the next life with things to treasure or help him on his way. At last the simply decorated lid was place over him. Uttering a last prayer, the priest threw a handful of dirt onto the casket. Everyone else did the same.

With dirty hands, we waited single file to partake in the ceremonial hand washing. Water from a plastic lev store bucket was poured over our cupped hands and dried on a bright blue bath towel. With clean hands, we broke off a piece of ritual bread to be eaten immediately. Next Krum and his brother Stefan distributed to each guest little plastic bags of goodies…… an apple, a roll, some candy bars and a little cup of a home-made dessert. We still must ask what the origin of this tradition is and if the items in the bag are symbolic or just goodies.

We were invited to return to the family home, a typical modest four room brick building with many out buildings including the toilet and a big yard with “things” piled deep along the back fence. Once again the priest invoked some prayers as we all stood with lit candles. We were at the edge of the group just outside the door listening to the prayers amongst the sounds of incessant dog barking throughout the neighborhood, crowing roosters and cackling hens in the back yard and the ping of melting snow dropping onto the piece of tin protecting the stoop.

With the extinguishing of the candles the service was complete. It was followed by a social gathering with food and spirits upstairs in the living/bedrooms. The table was set with foods we see often, as guests settled onto the edge of the beds or straight back chairs to celebrate Yanko’s life. We stayed just short of an hour as Ivan had to return to Plovdiv to teach a weekend class. It was still quiet when we left, everyone politely eating. Ivan said it would loosen up with the drinking of wine and Raikia and the smiles and laughter would follow. Surrounded with friends and family, Krum, his brother and mother would be able to laugh today, but tomorrow would bring back new sorrows.

Having gone through the death of my own mother just fifteen months ago, the contrasts were sharp, and yet the sorrows and loss was universally the same. Missing yesterday, was the quiet and attentive funeral director, taking care of all the little details, the shiny, pillowed coffin, the pictures and video remembrances, the music and the church service.  Family and friends were dressed the same yesterday as they always are, ready for a day of work. Mike’s white shirt, tie and sports jacket were conspicuously different. Beneath the plain clothing though were lives filled with memories of Yanko as a husband, father, friend and co-worker.

Though it felt like we had traveled through a time warp, there was something grounding in the simplicity of what we saw yesterday. Our modern day practices of arranging and pre-paying for our own funeral services, have in some ways “sterilized” the process of closure after death. I’m not sure I would have changed anything about my mother’s funeral, for no matter what the rituals are; the loss and emptiness remain the same.

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