Bulgarian traditions for the soul after death

Culture, DEATH Add comments


I’ve been thinking about funerary customs and the significance of the symbolism involved.  The symbolism of the traditional Christian funeral is obvious.  The Christian concept of the resurrection is reflected in the modern burial.  The body is buried in a nice casket since there is the belief the physical body will be recreated on Judgment Day. 

The purpose of embalming, dressing and using cosmetology on the deceased comforts the living.  Dead bodies are scary things.  Really, the trappings of the wake and funeral are for the living, not the dead.  The flowers, music, the funeral procession are for those who remain. 

I know some Bulgarians, and they have their own unique funeral traditions.  A few years ago I was invited to a Bulgarian friend’s wake for his mother.  It was held at a Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Chicago.  I had never been to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church before so it was very interesting.  The priest spoke in Bulgarian, but I was told it was a very old version of Bulgarian that Bulgarians today barely understand.   The church’s characteristic religious iconography was in full display and was quite different from what one would see other churches. 

Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Bulgarians believe another informal memorial service should be held 40 days after the wake, for the soul of the departed.  After attending the original service, I was indeed invited 40 days later to their second memorial service.  What about this idea of a 40 day mourning period?  It is their tradition.  Here is what this tradition means from what I have been told.

It is suggested that the dead may not necessarily depart the physical world immediately after death.  The soul may linger, returning to the places were they lived and frequented during life.  The departed may return to their daily routines and live the same life for a certain period of time because the soul cannot change itself so quickly.  This is something new for the soul.  Therefore the relatives and friends of the departed have to help the soul feel comfortable.  During these 40 days, when there is a family dinner, a place should be left at the dinner table for the departed and a meal set-aside at his or her favorite spot.  The family should continue to talk with the departed soul, so the soul will not feel frustrated that nobody is listening to them.   Eventually during this time, the soul will understand nobody can hear what they say, and that things have changed.  And they will come to understand they have to move on to their new existence beyond.  During this time, the dead will gradually break free of their connection to life, and by the 40th day they will have departed the physical world to be united with God. 

I was told of another tradition held in Bulgaria where a special cup of wine is often left at the tombstone.  Also, there was a glass box with a candle inside.  The glass box was used to prevent the candle from being extinguished.  Every time a loved one visited the grave, they would replace and light the candle and refill the wine cup.  These traditions are what the souls of Bulgarians expect.  After death, the souls could become confused, and these traditions help guide the dead towards their final destiny.

These unique Bulgarian customs are not meant to only comfort the living, but to actually comfort the dead and guide them to accept their new existence.  For them death is a gradual process, and they continue to communicate with the dead during that time.  It is a very spiritual way to accept death.  Is it a better approach then our modern commercial approach to funerals, where we bury and then try to forget?

9 Responses to “Bulgarian traditions for the soul after death”

  1. OCCULT VIEW » Blog Archive » Bulgarian traditions for the soul … | Bulgaria Today Says:

    […] Original post: OCCULT VIEW » Blog Archive » Bulgarian traditions for the soul … […]

  2. Stephanie Says:

    I have to see, I find it intriguing and it’s more natural for me to think in terms like Bulgarian that to go with the “traditional” Christian funeral procedures.

  3. David Says:

    Hi Stephanie,
    I told my dad about the traditional Bulgarian approach to dealing with death, and he sort of adopted the idea in a small way. He now leaves a chair open for mom. I also heard 40 days is how long it takes to learn a new habit, or to unlearn an old habit. That might have something to do with that tradition as well. 40 days might be the time needed to adapt to something new in one’s life.

    By the way, my dad recently had a visitation from mom. My dad is not a religious person, but what he saw made him ponder the nature of life after death. My next blog post will be about this event.

  4. Jasmina Says:

    I am macedonian and my people have the same tradition. For the first 40 days following death, the soul visits every place and every person that they knew and been at. Food and drink is left out for their comfort if they living cant make it to the cemetery every day. On the 40th day priest is called and a ceremony is served at the grave site – again leaving food, drink or anything that the deceased enjoyed. At 6 months and at 1 year the same is done. The last ceremony is at 3 years

  5. David Says:

    Hi Jasmina,
    Thanks for letting me know about the Macedonian traditions. It seems the idea that the soul lingers for a time is fairly widespread. I think it is a healthy way to deal with the passing of our loved ones. My mom recently passed away, and my family will gather on her birthday in November to have a dinner in her honor.

  6. Geslina Says:

    First off, sorry to hear about your mom. Hard enough to lose someone, but to have it happen so quickly must be even worse. As you said, at least she did not suffer too long – and believe me, I am in the medical field and have seen people hang on for months, even years, in terrible pain and suffering.

    Interesting, reading about these Bulgarian customs and hearing about your very practical father’s experience in the basement after your mom’s death. It is because of your father being a practical person that I believe this, and I would bet there is some truth to the reasons behind the Bulgarian traditions. My grandfather died of cancer as well, most of his illness was spent at home in an upstairs bedroom, he went to the hospital in the end and died within a few days. Within a matter of days, my VERY practical no-nonsense grandmother told my mother that he was still in the house, that she heard him calling her, heard him walking around, looking thru drawers and things, especially at night. I was 5 at the time, and had never had any fear in that house, spent a huge amount of time with my grandfather in his sick bed, keeping him entertained as only a little child can do (my mom said I was of great comfort and amusement to him in his last weeks)…But after he died, I refused to go upstairs anymore – I was suddenly terrified to go up there alone. And I was spared the details of his death, no funeral, just told he “went to heaven” – so no one had freaked me out, and I was too young to be imaginative about ghosts and things. Several weeks later, my grandmom came to stay at our house, she just didn’t want to be alone in her big empty house anymore, and one day my mother and aunt went back to the house to pick up some of my grandmom’s things….they had just gotten there, the house was empty and quiet, late afternoon, they were standing in the kitchen, and both of them distinctly heard someone upstairs, in my grandfather’s room – as if someone had gotten out of bed and was walking across the room. My mom was so scared she wet her pants, and they both left immediately.

    My grandfather was a good, kind man – and I don’t think his intention was to scare anyone. I just don’t think he had really “left” yet.

  7. David Says:

    Thanks for your story. I really do think those who passed away have a chance to “wander” for a bit. It depends on the individuals involved. I wonder if one’s religious beliefs influence their behavior after death? If someone has a tradition of spending time with family after death, that may be what happens. But if someone believes death is immediately followed by a trip to heaven, perhaps they won’t stick around.

  8. Roy Says:

    I have a very close friend who lives in Sofia. Her friends father just passed away, and the funeral was yesterday. I wanted to understand the traditions and customs about Bulgarian funerals and mourning. I want to send condolences to her and the friend, but need to do it with respect and love. Thanks for your forum here. I have a little more to go on now.

  9. Estelle Says:

    I am bulgarian. This custom is very special and helps all of us to slowly accept and make peace that our loved one is no longer around. We adapt and remember him .her and celebrate his life with these days of rememberance.

Leave a Reply