A Bulgarian Way to Die
Death is a sensitive subject and certainly not one we like to think of, but at some time or other we inevitably meet our maker and with so many of us living full time in Bulgaria, it is worth putting some thought into what you would do should the inevitable happen to yourself or a loved one here. After all Bulgarian funerals are very different to those back home and you should at least be prepared for the difference in culture as well as be able to make certain choices in your own arrangements particularly if you want a more anglicized service.
When death occurs
Death is one of the few areas where things move very quickly in Bulgaria. One of the reasons why is, that there are so few morgues and in local villages swift burial traditions have overtaken any modern expectations.
If your loved one dies in an accident, you will have to go to the morgue to identify the body. This is never a pleasant task and you should take someone with you who can speak Bulgarian and offer you emotional support. You should also be aware that in Bulgarian morgues the body is left naked and not covered up.
The British Embassy can help to make all of the arrangements and obtain necessary documentation for you if you so wish.
Once your loved one has been certified dead by the doctor, you need to find and undertaker to take care of the funeral arrangements. If you live in a village the mayor will help you do this. If you live in a city the doctor will be able to help you. The undertaker will arrange the time for the funeral and this occurs within 24 hours of the death and sometimes the body will be left in your house until then. A burial cannot take place in Bulgaria, without a declaration from the next of kin clearly stating that they wish to bury their relative in Bulgaria. The only exception is when death occurs because of a contagious disease.
The ceremony and other traditions
Funerals are very different in Bulgaria; they are both swift and practical but do aim to honour the memory of the deceased. The problem with this is that in a state of grief it is very difficult to organise the type of ceremony that you want and that is why you need to be prepared beforehand. The undertaker will talk to you about publishing death notices, which people paste over lamp-posts and bus shelters to announce the death of a loved one. This is a tradition not akin to a British burial and you do not have to have a death notice if you don’t want to. The other thing to note about these posters is that they are constantly renewed e.g. after 40 days, a year, three years and so on; again you may choose to only have the first notice or none at all. This way the memory of a loved one lives on forever.
Coffins here are very basic because people do not have the money to shell out on expensive funerals. Bulgarians leave the coffin open so everyone can pay their respects. Tell your undertaker to close the coffin if this is not what you wish for your loved one.
The funeral service is held in the nearest church. The service is usually around 40 minutes long and of course it will be in Bulgarian following the Bulgarian Orthodox service for burials, which involves lots of waving of incense. There are rarely any chairs in the church so be prepared to stand. Once the service is over, the coffin is transported to the graveyard on the back of a tractor, or by a horse and cart or small truck; in a few instances and in cities old fashioned hurses are used. The bereaved and other funeral guests walk behind the coffin to the graveyard and in some towns, but not all the procession is astounding and reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral with drums and trumpets. Another unique aspect is that people will take flower but only an even number.
At the graveside there is a small ceremony followed by food and wine for all of the guests including the gravedigger (in the cities the wake is often held in a private room rather than at the graveside). Often the mourners give money to the bereaved to help with the costs, which include documentation, the church ceremony, undertaker and the burial plot. A small wooden cross will mark the site of the grave and will contain the name of the deceased, although nowadays many Bulgarians opt for marble headstones, which often have an engraved picture of the deceased on.
Some red wine is left by the grave for the deceased and at certain times of the year rakiya is poured over the grave. After 40 days there is a second wake held in a restaurant and one the anniversary of the death there is another.
Few people are cremated here and if this is your wish the only place you can be cremated is in Sofia. If cremation is your wish then your next of kin has to write a declaration in front of an English-speaking notary or lawyer stating that their agreement to your cremation. If you are dying from a terminal illness and have no next of kin here, you may choose to give Power of Attorney for your death to a friend or your lawyer.
Dying in Bulgaria with no next of kin
If you live alone in Bulgaria, and your family live in the UK, then the police will inform the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who officially inform the British Embassy. The local authorities will attempt to contact your next of kin particularly if your neighbours have their contact details. It is wise to keep your passport up-to-date with this information as this is the first place they look. The second is your mobile phone. When it is not possible to trace the next of kin, the British Embassy will take over. When a foreign national dies here there is always a post mortem. If the cause of death is deemed to be natural causes, the body is released to the next of kin who may need to prove their relationship to you. After the post mortem a death certificate is issued by the local municipality.
If you wish to have your loved one repatriated to the UK, then you should contact the British Embassy who can make all of these arrangements for you. In cases like this be aware that you will be flying home with your loved ones body in the hold and you will have to go to a separate part of the baggage hall to collect what are termed as “human remains.” Repatriating a corpse is an expensive business and unless there is insurance to cover this loved ones will have to pay from their own pockets.
Death by suspicious circumstances
If the post mortem reveals that the cause of death is unknown or is not deemed to have been by natural causes, the regional court deals with the case. In these incidences you should call the British Embassy immediately and they will provide you with support and help with the local authorities and legal system. In cases where you suspect suspicious circumstances you should contact the British Embassy who will help to arrange professional legal advice. The British Consul in London can meet with family representatives in these instances. They will contact the next of kin if they receive any information concerning any new developments. If the next of kin visits Bulgaria during the early stages of the investigation and initial court hearings, the Embassy here will help them.
You can find the details of the Sofia crematorium along with a list of undertakers across the country at www.need.bg.