Dimiter Kenarov

Memento Mori

Bulgaria’s Ubiquitous Street Necrologues Preserve the Life of the Dead in the Memory of the Living.

Discussed: Standing in the Communist Party, The Officious Look of the Dead, Keeping Company with Madonna and Elton John, Flimsy Tombstones, An Exhortation from Cicero, Lost Souls, A Modern Death, The Recommended Paper for the Particular Deceased, Pedestrian Saints, The Death Taboo, The Circulation of Commodities and the Suppression of Mortality, Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag

I.

I was five when my grandmother Parashkeva first took me to a funeral. She was the mayor of a small village in northern Bulgaria, and one of her responsibilities was to read eulogies for her dead constituents. Priests were no longer welcome back then, with their mumbling promises of a better world (what could be better than life in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria?), so my grandmother became a secular priestess of sorts, a female Pericles. She married people and she buried them.

I remember my first body, laid out in a simple casket propped on two chairs in the garden of the dead man’s house. Dressed in a black suit, he had a burning taper stuck in his lap, wax dripping onto his hands. It was a hot summer, the ripe tomatoes in the vegetable patch glowing bright as embers. A few black-veiled women wailed softly by the coffin, one of them swatting the gathering flies with the loose ends of her headscarf. I was standing at the head of the attending crowd, holding on to my grandmother, mesmerized, while she read out the eulogy she had written earlier that day on stationery paper. Her voice was clear in the heat, formal and martial, the voice of a schoolmarm tackling a patriotic poem. The wailing grew louder as she praised the dead man, his useful life as a mechanic, his good standing in the Communist Party.

An open trailer draped in black hitched to a red farm tractor pulled up next to the house. In one smooth motion the pallbearers shouldered the casket and loaded it onto the flatbed, then helped the veiled women climb up. At an invisible signal, the tractor revved its engine, shot up a plume of exhaust, and jerked forward. Staggering, three gypsy brass players took up a drunken version of Chopin’s funeral march with the mourners following on foot behind them. At every bump in the road, the tractor-trailer jolted and shook out forgotten grains of wheat onto the cracked blacktop.

II.

My first dead man has been resting in the soft, fertile loam of northern Bulgaria for almost twenty-five years now, but each time I go back to my grandmother’s village, his face is still there, on the front door of his former house, on the fragrant lindens, on the old telegraph poles, staring at me from the windows of the general store and the shuttered bakery. He is clean-shaven and officious, youthful looking, his eyes ruefully fixed upon some invisible object in the distance.

This is not a gothic tale. There is nothing particularly ghostlike about those sheets of A4-size paper with a passport-size photo of the deceased—the fluttering, flimsy miniature tombstones are just necrologues.

III.

Necrologues are street obituaries that announce or commemorate the passing of a member of the local community. MOURNFUL NEWS, the black header says, or FAREWELL, or SORROWFUL REMEMBRANCE. The loose leaves quickly yellow in the sun and molder in the rain—but their sheer numbers safeguard their existence. Among posters for the upcoming concerts of Madonna and Elton John, among homemade ads offering English-language lessons and weight-loss recipes, peek out thousands of lusterless eyes. Some municipalities have tried to contain the spread of necrologues by allotting special bulletin boards for that purpose, but all efforts to sanitize and discipline urban spaces have come to naught. The eternal border between the upper world and the underworld, the city and the cemetery, has disappeared in Bulgaria. No one is truly dead without a necrologue, and yet necrologues are meant to keep the dead alive. As long as the photographic image of the deceased lasts, as long as passersby are willing to stop to look at that face and read the name, death has no dominion. “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living,” Cicero once told the Roman senators, when trying to convince them to erect a bronze statue in honor of his late friend Servius Sulpicius Rufus. Memory has always been death’s most dangerous adversary.

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Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based out of Sofia, Bulgaria. His work has appeared in Esquire, the Nation, VQR, and Boston Review. He is currently working on a book about the myth of the American Wild West in Eastern Europe.

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