March 22, 2008


This week brought tragedy to our town. A young English teacher at the high school who was also my counterpart--that is, I was working with her in classes and she was helping Jillian and I settle in and get accustomed to the town--died on Monday. Her name was Alexandra and she was twenty-eight years old.

She had been in the hospital, but there was no indication that it was anything life-threatening. Three days prior to her death, Alexandra had sent me a text message about her classes that I was covering. Things seemed normal. Apparently the situation deteriorated quite rapidly.

The town is devastated. Alexandra was quite popular--bright, outgoing, quick with a joke. Now her picture can be seen all over town, part of the traditional Macedonian death announcements posted on so many telephone poles. It reads (in Macedonian): "On 17/3/2008 died our beloved wife, daughter, sister, and daughter-in-law." There's even one posted on the main entrance to the high school. These announcements will remain up for one year or until the weather tears them down, whichever comes first.

The day of the burial was difficult. The teachers gathered at the high school and walked together with flowers to the house of Alexandra's parents. Jillian and I joined them. At the house it was something like a wake. We lined up, along with others who had come to pay their respects, and filed in slowly. It was an open casket, which I have to say neither Jillian nor I were really prepared for. Everyone lit a small candle and placed it in a large bowl of sand beside Alexandra's body.

The hardest part about this was seeing the students. Alexandra's class (she was their advisor of sorts), a group of 25 sophomores, were there together and really shaken by the whole thing. Hearing their sobs as they exited the home was probably the day's nadir.

During all of this Jillian and I felt a bit awkward--since we really hadn't known Alexandra all that well and because we are still newcomers to a very tight-knit community, we feared that perhaps we would be seen as imposing a bit. But really, I don't think anyone gave us much thought one way or the other.

A few hours later came the actual burial. Approximately one thousand people gathered for this event (the town's entire population is only 15,000). A small brass band played a song as the casket was moved from the house to the hearse. The song's tone surprised me--it didn't have any dirge-like qualities, but was almost upbeat. It contrasted enormously with the swelling procession walking behind the hearse.

At the graveyard it happened pretty quickly. Again the band played a short number, subsequently replaced by a chorus of sobs so clearly heard in the quiet of the cemetery. Many of the hundreds gathered there came forth to throw dirt on the casket before departing.

The high school has gone back to classes as normal, but it's clear that some of the younger teachers are barely holding it together.

During training, we had a session on Macedonian traditions, such as birthdays and weddings. I don't recall if funerals were mentioned, but it's no matter. This was less about the cultural differences between funerals at home and those here, and more about witnessing anguish in a small town. A true small town, where most people never leave except to attend university two hours away and then surely return. Alexandra had done just that and her family is undoubtedly known by every other family here. The burial was full of familiar faces: the woman who sells us our wine, our neighbors, and the guy who cut my hair and who once told me how much he admired Alexandra and how lucky I was to be working with her.

1 comment:

Sara said...

oh my god, that is horrible news. I went through a similar death experience when I was there. My condolences. I hope you two are okay.