A Death in the Field

Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”

I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.

In 2010, my ethnographic research took a historical turn, and I began a series of extended interviews with Bulgarian women who once worked for the state socialist-era Committee of the Bulgarian Women’s Movement. When I began these interviews five years ago, the youngest woman was 67-years-old and the oldest was 90. I understood that these fieldwork friends would not be around for decades into the future. I weathered the stroke of one eighty-year old (who eventually recovered), but I felt a deep, immobilizing sorrow when I learned, ten days ago, of the sudden death of the youngest, a woman named Ana.

I arrived in Sofia on the 20th of December 2014, and spent Tuesday the 23rd at Ana’s flat, chatting about politics and films and plans for the winter holidays. Ana had been ill for about a month, but she’d recovered and exuded life and energy when we met. We sat for hours swapping stories about my travails as a working mother and her memories of life as a translator and international women’s activist during the Cold War. Ana regaled me with personal stories about Vilma Espin de Castro and Hortensia Bussi de Allende. She spoke English, German, and Russian fluently in addition to her native Bulgarian. “A human isn’t a human unless he has read at least two volumes of Dostoyevsky,” she told me. Ana devoured books like a hungry basset hound devours unguarded meatballs.

We parted with hugs and kisses, and agreed that I would return on Saturday. I intended to call her on Friday to confirm the time, but the hour grew late and I decided to ring first thing the next morning.

My mobile phone woke me instead. The caller’s number appeared on the screen, but it was unfamiliar.

Halo?” I said, rubbing my eyes.

“I am sorry for calling you so early,” a voice said in Bulgarian. “But I know you had an appointment with my mother today, and I am calling to tell you that she can’t make it.” A long pause. “Last night, she died.”

The Bulgarian word “pochina” rang in my ears. “Who is this?” I said in Bulgarian. “Who died?”

“It’s Dolly,” the voice said. “My mother. My mother died. Last night.”

The sleep fog cleared. “Oh my god.”

“She called me last night while my husband and I were out around Sofia. She said she didn’t feel well. We went back home, but it was too late. She was alive when we arrived, but ten minutes later she died. A heart attack.”

I tried to match the information I heard with the image of Ana from Tuesday, comfortable and relaxed in her wine-colored velour track suit, telling me of her plan to reread all ten volumes of Dostoyevsky in the new year.

Dolly took my silence for confusion. “My mother won’t be able to keep her appointment.”

Later, Dolly called me again with details about the funeral. “Please come,” she told me, “She was cooking for you when she passed. I think she would want you to be there.”

The following day I stood in Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church, holding a candle with dozens of other mourners, as pallbearers bore Ana in an open casket. They placed her under the intricately carved iconostasis where the golden icons of Hristos Pantokrator and Sveta Bogoroditsa gazed down upon her pale face. Three baritone Bulgarian Orthodox priests chanted a funerary liturgy accompanied by a choir of tenors and mezzo-sopranos. Frankincense wafted from a swinging censer. When the time came, the mourners walked passed the body, laying flowers down at Ana’s feet.

In the Bulgarian Orthodox cosmology, the spirit of the deceased lingers for forty days after the death of the body. During this time the person remains near to the loved ones she left behind. Ana was still with us.

As I waited in line, the ambiguity of my presence at the funeral perplexed me. What was I doing among Ana’s close family, neighbors, and former colleagues? The only non-Bulgarian in the congregation, was I a social scientist or a friend? If Ana hovered somewhere watching, what did she want me to be? Our lives touched because of my research, but we also made a connection on the personal level of shared interests and favorite books.

When it came time to pay my final respects, I didn’t know what to think or say. I placed my warm hand upon her cold one. Tears flooded my eyes as I realized how much I would miss her. Maybe that’s all that mattered in the end. For that moment, I forgot I was an ethnographer and felt myself a simple human being. I wished Ana peace, and hoped the library in Heaven had all ten volumes of Dostoyevsky.

6 thoughts on “A Death in the Field

  1. An excellent ethnographic account – descriptive, interactional and discursive. Many non-native ethnographers forget the importance of social discourse. Others do not understand the significance of long-term immersion. Thank you for sharing this intense and involved account…tchau.

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