Saturday, March 5, 2011


Up to four times a year Serbian Orthodox remember the deceased on dan mrtvih (days of the dead) also known as zadušnica. It seems as though most Serbs who live in a city have relatives in a nearby village where they or their parents grew up. My Niš host tata, Miodrag, grew up in such a village in called Bela Palanka, roughly translating to 'white town'. His tata passed away two years ago and his aunt and uncle a couple years prior, all of whom are buried in the groblje (graveyard) at Bela Palanka. It's not clear if my host family carries out this Orthodox custom on all four designated Saturdays but last Saturday was the first of such zadušnice in 2011 and they asked that I accompany them.

The morning began with cooking, of course. My host mom and I made pita sa sirom (cheese pie/rolls) and smokva torta (fig cake) and we left around 11 to pick up more customary food and items on the way to Bela Palanka. I had been told we were going to visit Miodrag's rodno selo (birth village) without even realizing the day carried religious meaning. I suspected the day carried special value when we entered our neighborhood's market which was bustling with customers opting for custom ćevapi (kebabs), jagnjetina (lamb), wine, candles, flowers, and cloths. A hopping Saturday morning market is nothing new but the items people sought out seemed bizarre as fresh fruits, veggies, and dairy products are the normal weekend purchases. There was also a somber urgency amongst the shoppers without the standard haggling. After picking up foil-wrapped meat and artificial flowers we set out to the cemetery.

The day's significance still unbeknownst to me, we hauled two brimful baskets of what I thought was just food and drink and ambled through the graveyard passing half a dozen sorrowful clusters of people praying, lighting candles, presenting flowers, and, oddly enough, eating. I hadn't questioned why we were carrying the food made and purchased until I saw others ostensibly picnicing on the graves. When we got to the headstone of Miki's father we wordlessly unpacked the baskets which not only contained a thermos of coffee, a bottle of wine, mineral water, two packages of meat, the pita sa sirom and smokva torta made that morning, and bread, but to my surprise included an embroidered cloth, a dozen candles of various sizes, a hand-sized vase, bags of incense, and plates, cups, and utensils for three.

After laying all this out in silence we each lit a candle and stuck it upright on the grave with melted wax. Then we took eight other candles and put them in an urn beside the grave which had several limp, extinguished candles from grievers who'd paid their respects that morning. Miodrag recited a prayer and burned incense in the vase and we each guided it over the grave for a few minutes. A priest, who was with another family when we first arrived, came by and chanted some sort of lyrical mourning prayer and blessed the food. Then we ate. The cloth was laid over the grave with all the food, drink, and cutlery and my host mom made a plate for each of us. We ate in silence for twenty minutes and while Miki wasn't close to tears he was conspicuously sad and as a man who prides himself on being a jester, he seemed vulnerable and serious for the first time since I've arrived.

After eating we stood for a few more minutes and then Miodrag indicated it was time to go so we rewrapped the meat, pita, torta, folded the cloth, and left a bit of food for a Roma woman who had been hovering behind us since we'd arrived. As we left I noticed most of the graves had flowers and candles which presumably had been arranged that day, and some even had some food which was being eyed by several Roma families lingering on the side near some shrubbery. Not a word was spoken until arriving at their friends house in Bela Palanka but many words and jokes were told once we made ourselves comfortable in their living room and Miodrag took up his usual prankster persona. Finally I was given the lowdown of zadušnica and I felt comfortable asking questions. This is a quarterly tradition of the Serbian Ortodox to honor and remember those who have passed away. The flowers, candles, prayers, and incense are ways to pay respect any day of the year but the food is unique for these four days to metaphorically eat with and for the deceased. Lamb is the customary meat but most families base the meal around the favorite foods of those being honored. The specific wine, kebabs, and cake were three of his favorites and eating for and with them brings them good health in Heaven. My host mom explained that people traditionally leave the food on the grave but that is rarely done in recent times.

This ceremony lasted for nearly ninety minutes and fortunately Draginja ensured I was dressed for the occasion. The wind made it feel below 0ºC and normal means of warming the body (jumping, jogging in place) were definitely not appropriate. At times the weather made the experience seem even more surreal. Many times I found myself questioning what I was doing and moreover where I was doing it and then a wind would rush in sending a chill through my spine and I would conclude that I was indeed in a graveyard in South-eastern Serbia eating cake. After a three-hour lunch and tea with Miodrag's family friend in the village we headed back to Niš and the day felt like any other.

Bela Palanka is a really beautiful village and in the spring we'll return to Miodrag's father's house which has become their weekend getaway when the water isn't frozen in the pipes. It's larger than my host family's village near Novi Sad but I love the small-town feel which runs through both and I look forward to seeing more of it when the weather is kinder on the toes. Until then I'm happy to stay anywhere indoors in Niš.

I hope this was interesting and understandable. Soon I have a class with the babies so I better get today's lesson together, we're going to play with legos as part of our second lesson of colors.

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