Gardening in Bulgarian Graves

It was quite a vague memory last year when we visited an enormous graveyard heading a few kilometres south in the outskirts of Yambol. It was a particular Saturday in May where everyone in Bulgaria tends to the family graves and it is an important day, as the memories of loved one are remembered and respected.

Today arrived the third Saturday in May where the tradition is again held. As reminded by Galia some weeks ago, I knew it was coming up but now have a better understanding of the social significant.

This year we had the whole household travelling with us as we made our way to the shops very early in the morning. The reason being that is was a very warm day and when tending the graves the humidity would not affect our Baba Mama too much. As Baba said, ‘We didn’t want another addition to the graves today!’ She does have a good Bulgarian sense of humour with no taboo subjects.

Before we left, a big bottle of water and a couple of Bulgarian gardening tools were put in the boot of the Lada. As with all occasions we all dressed neatly but practical clothing, as we knew we were going to get a bit dirty with the work ahead.

On arriving at the supermarket, only because it was on route to the cemetery. Outside the supermarket was a ‘fast food’ takeaway shack. Not the global chemical crap fast food as you know such as McDonalds (I even hate typing that name!) but Bulgarian traditional food served up before your very eyes. We had to wait for the food to be cooked as I was left watching the maestro chef at work. Galia and Ivo moved on to do the shopping in the supermarket with Baba quite happy and content left behind listening to traditional Bulgarian music in the Lada with the windows rolled down on this beautiful day.

There were many sweets and snacks bought but no flowers strangely enough but I knew why there weren’t any flowers but I misunderstood the sweets and snacks even before I was told. As for the ‘fast food’ for four, well I thought it was going to be a long morning and we would have a picnic in the graveyard! I was wrong again.

We were laden and off again with the breeze form the speeding Lada cooling us all down again. It was only a short drive as we entered the car park of the cemetery. There before us must have been about 30 different flower stalls from the static stalls to the individual with a bucket. This market wasn’t licensed by any means you could just turn up and sell your flowers to visitors. Only then did I realise why Galia didn’t buy flower in the supermarket.

The car park had allocated white lines marking out individual parking lots but typical Bulgaria, they were hardly used, every driver parked on the other side of the road where the flowers stalls were. So practical as they didn’t have to walk the 10 metres form their assigned parking spaces. Being English I of course conformed and parked neatly between the white lines only to be blocked in by two cars following me who did it the Bulgarian way! Did I get annoyed? A year or so ago I may well have but now only with myself for not being as practical as the other drivers.

The flowers were in abundance and the choice and variety immense, this makes it much harder to choose as we wandered up and down the numerous sellers’ presented floral treasures. Because there was so much competition with the number of traders the prices where unbelievably low. So much lower in price than the supermarket, and the quality far higher here so know you know why this was the place to buy. It is so refreshing to see this success in competing with supermarkets!

Next stop was the candle stall as these were to be lit used later as tradition stands firm here. You couldn’t get these candles in the supermarket as they are uniquely bought in Bulgarian churches, graveyards stalls and possibly bargain 1 leva shops scattered around towns in Bulgaria.

We were now all ready to go into the graveyard but why did we see so many cars parked outside, last year all the cars drove into the graveyard and parked there. It wasn’t’ long before we got annoyed as to the reason why. Just like many other things that are happening here, a money making scheme was put in place. They now charge a 1 leva entrance fee for each vehicle to enter. Two years ago it was free to park anywhere in Yambol but barriers went up and charges asked for everywhere now. This is what it is becoming in Bulgaria now and a sense of injustice was felt by all of us as we paid the fee and drove on. It was too far for Baba to walk as the graves were at the far and of this enormous park; we had no choice on health grounds.

The first grave was found as we parked up took the water, garden tools, candles and some sweets and snacks. All made sense bar the snacks, why did we bring those out? As we made out way to Galia’s first husband’s grave, we passed another family out tending to one of their relative’s grave. The snacks were given to the said family and they returned with food for us in exchange. So, the snacks bought and were used as an offering to others as part of the tradition that continues. It makes sense now. What a lovely notion, complete strangers exchanging gifts as part of an ongoing ritual. It was so uplifting to be part of this.

All the gravestones are very similar in style, even going back 50 years the style hasn’t changed at all. Every stone has a framed portrait of the person laid to rest and the usual name and dates they lived. No epitaphs are inscribed. In fact that again was so refreshing to see where every grave was in the main equal in status. You may get an occasional sculptured bust of one or two individuals but generally all the graves are simple and kept to traditional dimensions and stature. Communism ideals still remain for the dead no doubt and why not? We are all equal at this point.

The grave was now tended to, weeds cleared, fresh flowers laid, candles lit and put in place and prayers said by each member of the family. I stood to one side and didn’t interfere with the rituals that went on. It was just good that this still goes on and that memories and respect remain paramount in Bulgaria.

The candles usually had a wind proof device used in typical home made and practical Bulgarian fashion. Big oilcans were placed upside-down and one wall cut out making an ideal windproof environment to place candles. The top without the lid was now facing down onto the grave’s earth, a perfect base for the candles to be planted and stand up; the candles were yellow, long and thin and easily push into the ground.

We visited three other graves in different location, Galia’s father, Uncle and Grandparents graves. Baba mentioned she wanted to be laid to rest with here husband as we tended that particular grave and went through the rituals.

We had three generations of family here with Baba, Galia and Ivo, the three representatives present. Yet again how wonderful it is to see such a close-knit family that reinforce the tradition on this third Saturday of May.

It is quite strange but at no time was there any sombre atmosphere or anyone upset during the whole morning. It is as if they had come to terms with the death a long time ago and this was more of a celebration I memory of their lives rather than a mourning event. As we drove on our way out, then Ivo joked saying that we had to pay 1 leva to get out of the cemetery.. This may be the case next year Baba added.

We got home and it was all out clothes off to be washed as we had a change of outfit and the day’s routine went on as if nothing had happened earlier. The fast food bought earlier was now laid on the table with beer and eaten and yet again the food, the company and the life here continues to be idyllic in many areas of moral grounds.