Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Bungalows of Eastern Serbia’s Cemeteries

From a distance, the tiny houses on the outskirts of the eastern Serbian village of Smoljinac looks like a couple of cozy summer cabins. It’s only when you step inside, you realize that they were built not for the living, but for the dead.

The elaborate mausoleums, resembling small bungalows, are fully furnished with tables, a couple of chairs, pictures of the family hanging from walls, and flower pots both inside and on the porch. Some even have electric power inside.

The strange custom of building houses instead of tombstones began in the late 1960s when a laborer, who had made a fortune working overseas, returned home and decided to build a magnificent mausoleum for himself. Others thought it was a good idea to show off one’s wealth. Now there are more houses than tombstones in the cemetery.
The village, located around 100 kilometers east of Belgrade, is home to around 1,800 people, many of them elderly. A majority of its younger population went to work abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, sending remittances that allowed the village to prosper. The money went into building new homes. Competition among villagers have ensured that each new house built is larger and grander than its neighbor. There are plaster eagles on the fences, gilded doors and lawns with dwarfs and little fountains. Some of the houses were built to look like small castles with towers. The competition is same in the graveyard.

The phenomenon is not unique to Smoljinac. Many villages in eastern Serbia bury their dead and build little houses over them, filed with pictures and other memorabilia. The cost of building such a structure is 4,000 euros on average, almost always paid by remittances sent from abroad.

Over a million Serbs are currently living and working abroad. In 2015, remittances to the Balkan country amounted to 9.2 percent of national output.

The practice of building grand houses have declined since the global recession, but the gravehouses are still being built.

Having a house instead of a tombstone is not a bad idea though, says one resident. "We need a roof above our heads to sit down and have a coffee when we visit our dead."

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