Necrophilia is nothing new in politics or commemorative practices, of course. It is enough to follow discussions on the names of public places, look at the monuments to “our fallen heroes,” see who gets funerals and anniversaries observed, and you can see that the zombie invasion has been with us for so long that we might even call it a cohabitation. In postsocialist politics especially, attention to the “cosmic” dimension of dead bodies, which “serve as sites of political conflict related to the process of reordering the meaningful universe,” has marked an ongoing current of discussion since Katherine Verdery published her by now iconic work, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies in 1999.
Dead bodies have a special valence in the states of former Yugoslavia, where historical figures are flown around, removed and reburied (a recent instance involved Petar Karadjordjević, the hapless teenager who was King of Yugoslavia for eleven days in 1941), war victims are shifted around and hidden and their photographs used in an alarming variety of contexts, and speculation about where they might be located continues to (de)mobilise whole sets of institutions.
The body of Slobodan Milošević has been no exception, even before he was dead. When he was in power he dressed it up in informal gear to show that he was a little bit unlike the men without qualities who marked the old nomenklatura. When he was on trial he deployed its frailty to influence the timing of proceedings. And when he died halfway through presenting his legal defence, necromance flowered into necropassion.
First came speculation that the indictee had been murdered by the Tribunal, which remained popular in some rarefied political circles for a while. Then came the question of how his life would be represented – with one answer offered by the popular daily paper Blic, which offered a front-page photomontage summarizing his life and times: the wreckage on the Ibar highway from the attempted murder of opposition politician Vuk Drašković, the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija, the pyramid-scheme “banker” Dafina Milanović, the protests at electoral fraud in 1996 and 2000, and the antiregime demonstrations of 9 March 1991. Then came the war of newspaper necrologues, which pitted praise from his political associates and Scheveningen neighbours against condemnation from cultural elites, and a cameo by Mile s Čubure.
The contention intensified once the body made its way back to Serbia. The Mayor of Belgrade refused to provide a spot for him in the “alley of worthy citizens” in the city’s New Cemetery, on the ground that “the Alley of Worthy Citizens should be used for the burial of people who have, by their character and engagement, left a positive, noble and human trace in this city and in our country. The traces that the Milošević regime left behind it are the reason that I believe that he in no way deserves the mantle of a worthy citizen, neither in the Alley nor in Serbian history.” The military declined to provide a burial with ceremonial honours. As the question of his burial began more and more to resemble the plot of The Trouble With Harry, the decision was eventually made that rather than packing the corpse off to Moscow where it was likely to be welcomed, it could be planted in the garden of the Milošević family house in Požarevac.
With no public funeral, competing public rallies were held instead. A few retired generals compensated for the military’s refusal to provide a ceremonial guard by showing up in other people’s uniforms that they had borrowed. There were addresses by some interesting folk: paraphilosophers Milorad Vučelić and Mihailo Marković turned up, and so did the Austrian politician-manque Peter Handke. A high point was the public reading of a letter from Vojislav Šešelj by his deputy Aleksandar Vučić (whatever happened to him? Somebody should include him in one of those “Where are they now?” features).
Meanwhile his old opponents organised their counterdemonstrations. One politician made a round of visits to the graves of several of Milošević’s prominent victims. In Belgrade an “antiburial” was held to coincide with the supporters’ rally, with colourful balloons released into the air under the slogan “Overi” (Make certain [that he is dead]).
If the fascination with the good or bad (depending on your political tastes) qualities of the deceased looks a little bit like one of the most enduring contributions of Balkan folk culture to global commercial culture, the vampire legend, this resemblance was not lost on people in Serbia (nor was it lost on two of my friends who wrote very different books bringing together political conflicts and the vampire legend). One year after Milošević died, one person made the symbolic point very dramatically, breaking into the garden in Požarevac and driving a stake into the grave.
In the years since, a small and shrinking group of diehards has come to do their version of Yahrzeit every March. Milošević’s party stopped participating when Boris Tadić rehabilitated them by bringing them into government in 2008, but the stalwart something or other Milutin Mrkonjić has held firm. But this year even Mrkonjić has been skipping out on rituals held over the body of Milošević.
The risk was emerging that the most polarising set of remains in all Braničevo could fall into forgetfulness and neglect.
Leave it to the tabloid press to borrow a page from the interlife of Radovan Karadžić, who spent the time between committing his crimes and being arraigned for them as a pseudonymous faith healer. The always delightful and by no means evocatively named daily Pravda has emerged with a new story. According to, um, somebody’s neighbour in Požarevac, a plant has grown out of the grave that magically cures difficult skin disorders!
The theme of healing with sacred plants carrying the spirit of a person is of course far from unknown in folklore – it might be thought of as a variant on entheogen. It is also hardly unique to a particular region, as one recent case attests. It is probably fairly new to contemporary politics. But this is a brave new world, and gardening is a challenging old skill.