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.
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?