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30 Oct 14

They Live Among Us

Marcus Agar

It is interesting how different cultures deal with death and the issues of loss and remembrance. 

Losing someone close is bound to be unsettling but how we handle the aftermath and go on living is reflective of the people we are, the values we hold true and the society in which we live.

Graveside rituals and memorials can ensure that families are neither out of sight nor out of mind. In the Balkans, death and loss never seems too far away.

Cemeteries of various denominations, black and white memorials on fence posts and photos of lost loved ones on the mantelpiece in homes across the Balkans all provide succour for those left behind. These small reminders strengthen our closest bonds and provide a sobering moment of calm and reflection. They lead us to evaluate what actually matters in life: our family and friends.

All of this was brought home to me when I was invited to visit the grave of a good friend’s father on the day that would have been his birthday. In itself, this was a bit out of my comfort zone – I don’t even visit my own family’s burial sites – but this did seem like one invitation I should not refuse.

We met in the garden of a friend’s house and breakfasted on strong black coffee with boiled eggs, creamy kajmak and corn bread. Despite it being not yet 9am, we washed it all down with brimming shots of homemade rakia.

Any attempt to politely decline a glass of the potent homemade spirit was brushed off by my friend's mother as just meaningless words, as she topped up our stretch-necked shot glasses.

Unusually, I was not driving on this trip, so I did not even have that excuse to fall back on. Not that it tends to be taken too seriously, anyway, in a country where drink driving is disturbingly casual.

I would not consider myself a wuss when it comes to drinking but by the time we hit the road on one of those mornings when a blanket of mist clings to the new day, the rakia and soft-focus sun were conspiring to make my head spin a little.

Like an excited dog whose jowls flap in the force of the wind, I was thankful for the chance to turn my face to the wind through the open cars window as we sped out of town towards a country village, along increasingly more narrow and dusty roads.

The graveyard at which we arrived was in the corner of a flat field beside an old church that seemed far too big for the village it served.

Some few hundred metres away, construction was already well advanced on a new peach-bricked church, complete with a Serbian flag already flying from scaffolding around the unfinished central tower's sparkling dome. Religion must be doing good business in these parts, I thought.

Walking through the gravestones of the Orthodox churchyard, I was slightly surprised to arrive at a sizeable family plot of long-lost relatives, surrounded by a low metal fence and with the family name carved in stone on a slab at the gateway. Written in Cyrillic, of course.

For me, used to idyllic England village churchyards, family plots have always signified wealth and high standing. From what I knew of this particular family, this was not what I would have expected.

Feeling a sudden sense of heightened respect, I walked the three rows of graves, passing relatives from my friend's family. Maybe I had misjudged this family, I considered. And, if so, what had happened to their former wealth?

While the age of QR codes and graveside video messages has not yet arrived in Orthodox cemeteries, the practice of lifelike portraits being engraved in granite headstones is commonplace. Some even have actual photographic images embedded in the stone.

QR codes on gravestone, cementery
Could a growing UK trend for graveside QR codes be a step too far for Balkan mourners more used to flowers, candles and graveside meals

No matter how often I see them, I still find it strangely discomforting to confront the unsmiling stoic faces of youthful people - often far younger than their final years - staring back at me from the black and grey headstones. They always look so distant, so removed, and not really very comforting at all. Clearly they bring comfort to those they are meant to relieve, though. And that is what counts.

What I was not expecting, when told that we were visiting the grave of my friend’s father, was for a bottle of rakia to be retrieved from behind one of the headstones.

Slightly cloudy, whether as a result of the distillation or, more likely, the conditions in which it was stored among the snails and overgrown grass, the bottle was passed around, each of us expected to take a committed swig and raise the bottle towards the grave in silent salute to the dear departed dad.

No words were spoken in this silent and strangely moving tribute of sharing a drink on this man's birthday. Of course, the bottle made more than one round of the four of us stood among the graves. There is something almost purifying about naturally chilled rakia that makes it particularly suited to cemetery rites. And, anyway, I feared it might be disrespectful to refuse.

After a few swigs of the bottle, sensing it was the right thing to do, I slunk back slowly to leave my friend knelt beside the grave, alone in his thoughts. After a few more swigs, we were done at the cemetery and so headed off towards a nearby lake for a lazy day of beers and fishing.

All in all, it was a very moving and fitting tribute, suitably reminiscent of what would be going on in homes and cafes across the region. People would be sharing time together, raising glasses and chatting.

The only difference being, we were sharing these moments with the dead. To my friend and to others, though, it was not seen that way. These missed family members might be gone but they will not be forgotten. They live among us.

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