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Sunday, June 6, 2010

" Hello from Bulgaria"

       " Hello from Bulgaria "

That's what it said on the subject line one morning in 2002.  My heart always jumps when an unexpected intriguing email appears.  Bulgaria?  Couldn't be.  Our International Association of obituarists had found its way to a number of countries around the world by this time but....Bulgaria?

In the email that followed was a plea for assistance.  The writer was a student (yes, in Bulgaria) who was trying to achieve a graduate degree in the study of the obituary or necrolog as it is called there. Requests of this type are music to my ears, of course.  It is at these times I realize I am a cross between a teacher, a missionary and a real softy for anyone who needs my help.

Emilia touched all the bases with me.  She was a struggling student...studying the genre I love...and doing it virtually alone.  There was no professor to oversee her graduate study ...much less her study of the art of the obituary.  She was trying to cast her net across the internet for help.

It took only moments for me to reply to this young mystery woman in Bulgaria and to give her a contact in academia who was made to order for her studies.  Dr. Nigel Starck at the University of South Australia was involved in research for a book in the making dealing with comparisons of obituary customs among various cultures.  What a perfect match.  Dr. Starck was kind enough to respond to Emilia and to guide her to some sources for her study.  A matchmaker couldn't have done better!

Over the months of 2002 and early 2003 I kept in touch with Emilia in the hope of sharing her study with our Great Obituary Writers' Conference in the summer of 2003.  It would have been a miracle if Emilia had been able to join us in person for the Conference.  But that was not to be.  However, she graciously prepared a presentation for us to share in her absence.

Not only did she share her academic paper, she sent photographs to enhance our understanding of the necrolog customs in Bulgaria.  The paper and these priceless photos are presented here from our archives as a gift from Emilia.

You will see that the paper is not in perfect English.  Emilia was not in perfect English, either.  However, I felt it was important to leave the paper as written.  She had help from a friend with the translation and under the conditions, I find it very appealing.

My last contact with Emilia was prior to the Conference in July 2003.  She let me know that she was very pleased we would be able to distribute her study to our conferees...and that she and her husband were moving.  She did not have a new email address to give me at that time.  And to this day, I have not ever been able to reach her after her move.  I, too, have moved and changed emails as well.  I am hoping that someone reading this piece might be able to locate my Emilia Karaboeva from Bulgaria.  It is possible that she and her husband have moved from Bulgaria but I have no way of knowing that.  I would just love to open my email one day soon and find :  "Hello from Emilia."

With this background, I hope you will read Emilia's study--"Bulgarian Street  'Necrolog'--The Multiplied Sophisiticated Face of Death " by Emilia Karaboeva--with an enhanced appreciation of the printed words as well as the remarkable photographs.



I am everlastingly astonished and amazed at the wonder of all things technical, the internet and all its incarnations. I can remember when my father installed two way radios in his oil field servicing trucks so he could talk to his guys and track the progress of a well. I thought it was magic. I can remember when he got his first mobile phone in the car--with long distance, even. Hard to believe. So you can imagine my thrill at the unbelievable , unimaginable feats of magic made possible by today's cell phones, email , Facebook and the like. Today's column is a very happy story.

As you may know, my longtime serious literary interest is in the art of the obituary. I am sure that "happy" and "obituary" may not often be found in the same story. However, the study of the obituary has given me many happy experiences--none happier than the one I share with you today.

At the outset of my obituary interest, it became apparent that there were not many writers who specialized in this genre of documenting the dead. In fact, I didn't really know the difference between a death notice and a true obituary. Having been a teacher of English, speech and creative writing, I began to wonder how a writer would fall heir to the obituary assignment at a newspaper....and more important, what was an obituary writer like? What did one look like?

To make a ten year literary journey short, I decided to convene some Texas obituary writers for a workshop in which they would tell me what they did, how they got the obit assignment and how they managed to write about death day after day. The First Great Obituary Writers' Conference was held in 1999 in Archer City, Texas at the Spur Hotel. Obituary writers from the major dailies in Texas attended: Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Light, among others. In addition there were conferees who were writers of a general beat who wanted to know more about the art of the obituary.

Over the next years our band of obit writers would grow into the International Association of Obituarists including journalists, academics, historians, genealogists, artists, filmmakers and, of course, obituary writers for news media. Throught the magic of the internet, interest and our numbers began to spread around the globe. We shared this interest with our colleagues in Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, Italy, Israel, Canada, Norway, Africa, Mexico among others as well as a wide swath of United states obituarists. To date we have held ten annual international conferences for obituarists.

Each day it was exciting to open the email page to see who might be sending a note about the art of the obituary. It is still a thrill to see an email from a new contact with information about the obituary customs in their country. One such email arrived on my computer in late 2002. The subject line read, "Hello from Bulgaria." At first I imagined it was a joke from one of my international obit colleagues or at least a travelogue from one of them who might be visiting Bulgaria. To my everlasting surprise--and joy--this was truly an inquiry from a young woman in Bulgaria who somehow had read an article about our obituary studies. We had been featured in an article in the venerable New Yorker magazine as well as a number of print and online pieces. PBS and NPR had interviewed us on several radio features as well. Not knowing exactly how the writer found us, I was stunned with a contact from Bulgaria.

This mystery email soon revealed a plea from a young woman who was working on a graduate study of the obituary and the customs of death in her country, Bulgaria. To make matters more pressing, the young woman was doing this on her own since there was no graduate professor to guide her or to even help her with her study. She had very limited access to historical materials, libraries were in short supply and apparently there were few historians available to her for the research phase of her study.

My new friend in Bulgaria, Emilia, could not have hit a more willing target than I! This challenge of helping her and of putting her in touch with the resourceful obituarists in our association was exactly my calling. Within the matter of a few minutes and hours, Emilia had a new family of friends, teachers and experts who could guide her. Chief among those was Dr. Nigel Starck, a univerity professor at the University of South Australia, who--much like Emilia--had put an inquiry in an email "bottle" and tossed it to me in the magic internet ocean some years earlier. Dr. Starck took up the mantle of sharing standards of academia and pointing Emilia to resources including some of his own writing on the subject.

Emilia continued her work in Bulgaria and promised to share her dissertation-- complete with photographs of obituary customs in Bulgaria--with us for an upcoming conference of our group. Although it was not going to be possible for her to attend in person, she allowed us to distribute her presentation at the 2003 conference. It was and is a fascinating study of death notices and obituary customs in a culture far different from our own. It only added to my thirst for learning about these customs in the world's cultures. Emilia was very grateful for the guidance she had received from our obituarists and , in particular, from Dr. Starck in Australia.

That was 2003. Over the years I had wondered about Emilia. She told me she was moving soon after her study was shared with our conferees. I, too, made a move soon after. Our communication was complicated by our having lost one another on the internet highway of life.

Time passes. A few months ago I established a blog site for the discussion of the art of the obituary. I posted Emila's study and photos online for those who might find it of interest. And on a very long shot, I searched the internet for my missing Emilia--knowing that it had been years since I had heard from her and knowing that any number of things could have happened to her. I hoped for an email to pop up saying "Hello from Bulgaria."

Last night the gods of the planet and the internet smiled on me. There before my eyes was the long-awaited email: "Hello from Bulgaria." Screams of delight could be heard for miles, I am sure. My Emilia--that teeny tiny needle of a friend--had been found in that gigantic intergalactic internet haystack. A more welcome gift I cannot imagine. Her heartfelt thanks for the help of Dr. Starck and me along the way made my day; made my week!

"Hello from Texas, Emilia!"

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