November 11, 2016 / 1:52 PM / a year ago

Eastern Serbia's bungalow cemeteries

SMOLJINAC, Serbia (Reuters) - From a distance, the cemetery in the eastern Serbian village of Smoljinac looks like a residential neighborhood eerily placed among graves.

Chapels are seen at a cemetery in the village of Sapine, Serbia, October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

But once inside the grounds, after passing a section with the usual stone slabs, visitors find rows of small bungalows painted in pastel colors.

They have one or two rooms, large windows and ornate plaques - some inside, some outside - memorializing the deceased.

These are the burial chapels of Smoljinac, cosy cabins with a furnished room inside, a storage place for wreaths and funeral paraphernalia, and the family crypt below. Some even have electric power inside.

“We need a roof above our heads to sit down and have a coffee when we visit our dead,” said one woman who refused to identify herself.

The village of Smoljinac, around 100 kilometers east of Belgrade, in a fertile plain along the Danube river, is home to around 1,800 people, many of them elderly.

As in most of the region, a majority of its younger population went to work abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly in Austria, sending remittances that allowed village to prosper.

“Over 70 percent of the village population is abroad,” said Milomir, a Smoljinac-born mechanic from the nearby town of Pozarevac.

A picture of a deceased woman is seen on an old grave at a cemetery in the village of Sapine, Serbia, October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Over a million Serbs are currently living and working abroad, thanks to waves of emigration between the end of World War Two and the 1990s. In 2015, remittances to the Balkan country amounted to 9.2 percent of national output.

“Young people were sending money from Western Europe and building homes. They competed with neighbors over which house would be taller,” Milomir said. “They do that at the graveyard, too.”

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The cost of such a structure varies, but it is around 4,000 euros ($4,372.40) on average. No construction permit is sought from the municipality.

Most people refused to be interviewed, fearing authorities could take legal steps against them, including demolition of the chapels.

“It depends on what the customer wants,” said a grave digger. “A common family-size crypt is around 800 euros ... big chapels cost a lot of money.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church mostly turns a blind eye to the conspicuous chapels since many owners are also big benefactors.

Near the entrance to the cemetery are the graves of the poorer folks of the town, marked by simple slabs of rock on the grass.

“When I married here 40 years ago, only a handful of chapels had been built,” said Rajka, an old woman who came to lay flowers at a common gravestone. “Look at the cemetery now.”

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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