The word “necrologue” is not part of the official English vocabulary today, but it used to be a couple a centuries ago, with the meaning of “obituary” or “necrology.” Still, I prefer to use “necrologue” instead of “necrology” in this case because this is how it is used in Bulgaria.
Necrologues in Bulgarian culture have always been a personal statement in an independent voice. Even in times when public speech and writing had to be officially sanctioned and was often censored, necrologues were not published in newspapers but posted in public spaces (outside walls, front doors, bulletin boards, bus stops, lamp posts). So they were an unofficial personal statement on someone’s life and the public announcement of grief of his/her relatives. When I was a child, I loved reading necrologues of ordinary people while walking down the street. I used to try to figure out the unspoken circumstances behind each one: a big family? accomplishments? husband and wife died together in a car accident? a long life lived well?…
Even if they were independent statements, most necrologues were not that interesting as they were modeled after a pattern provided by the funeral home. Graphically, they were flyers with a picture at the center, the dates of birth and death underneath, followed by a brief announcement of the practicalities of the funeral. But sometimes they included interesting details, like references to the life of the person, maybe the cause of death, and sometimes even a poem about the person’s good qualities and the grief of relatives.
Those poems were of course far from being examples of high artistry. I loved reading them and analyzing them with crushing criticism. The pictures were also a good object of my attention: usually showing the person in the best moment of his or her life: much younger, maybe in a dreamy state, with an old-fashioned hairdo or slightly retouched, i.e. the way he/she should be remembered.
The most interesting necrologues, curiously, were necrologues of well-known people. This kind of necrologues was not common, since their obituaries would appear in newspapers and their death was marked through official channels. But sometimes, when the person was somehow wronged by those in power, the family gave voice to their protest through a necrologue posted on the street, on the door of the person’s home, on a popular bus stop. That necrologue made covert references to what really happened and was a source of information and hushed rumors of the injustice that was committed.
I don’t know how it was possible that authorities tolerated those expressions of dissent; probably they assumed necrologues were not important vehicles of influence compared to official TV and newspapers. But they fed an unspoken, “underground” public imagination and memory.
Today necrologues are still thriving in Bulgaria, even with freedom of press and all. They are still a strong independent statement uncensored by official style and unmodified by a newspaper’s policy.
If they used to contain no symbolic graphics except a five-pointed star for people who had held some important position in life, now necrologues often include religious symbols, like a cross, a dove, an angel. Now in color, they are often in a larger format and even online, in special searchable databases.
I was still impressed by them when I was in Bulgaria last summer as they have become bolder in their voice. One example is the necrologue “published” by the mother of a young man gunned down by “business competitors.”
Maybe his was a shady business, but she still needed to make public her grieving anger. In the necrologue, she recounted the events of the evening when her son died, her premonition of the upcoming tragedy, her son not listening to her begging to “stay away from that man” (left unnamed). At the end, a mother’s curse directed at the killer.
The only recourse this mother had was the power of her voice and the attempt to shape the town’s opinion and memory of her son through that necrologue.