Royal bones of contention

There’s no such thing as a final resting place when it comes to royal remains

Royal bones of contention

Andrej Cukic/EPA/Keystone Press

The coffin containing the remains of the last king of Yugoslavia, Peter II, was dug out from a tomb in the floor of St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Ill., on the evening of Jan. 16 on the order of his son, Alexander, before being put on a plane to Belgrade. Instead of the old marble grave marker, a new layer of concrete indicated where the monarch had lain for nearly 43 years. Only a handful of people knew the royal bones were being taken for internment in the family crypt in Serbia.

The thousands of Serbian-Americans who visited the U.S. tomb each year believed Peter asked to be buried near the Chicago-area diaspora. “It was cloak and dagger,” John Bosanac, who’d attended Peter’s funeral in 1970, complained of the removal. He would have liked a public farewell, a sentiment echoed by Vera Dragisich, 50, a University of Chicago lecturer who often visited Peter’s tomb. “We weren’t allowed to say goodbye. There was a more formal and respectful way to do the exhumation, where those who wished to be present at this historical event could do so.” Such was the uproar that the king’s son issued a press release saying the exhumation and transfer “was strictly done following legal advice.” The reason for the haste, Alexander told Sky News, was that the last in a series of obstacles, including decades-long Communist objections, had finally been overcome.

The state funeral for Peter II, scheduled for May 26, is coloured by recent history. Peter has been a nationalist hero ever since the 18-year-old monarch fled then-Yugoslavia in 1941 after the Nazis invaded. After the war, the Communists abolished the monarchy, and in recent decades, the country has endured instability, war and breakup. The official line of the nationalist government is that Peter’s burial will contribute to national reconciliation, explains Srjdan Milosevic of the Institute for Recent History of Serbia in Belgrade. It also, he says, boosts Alexander’s pushy efforts to get the monarchy restored. Though “the monarchy isn’t deeply rooted in the popular consciousness,” Milosevic says, Alexander’s strategy might succeed as an “act of political compromise among the political elite, the Church and intellectuals.”

Using bones to legitimize a claim to the throne isn’t new. France’s Louis XVIII did it in 1815 when he had remains purporting to be those of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette reburied in the Basilica of St-Denis. “He created continuity where none really existed,” notes Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian. It may happen again, this time in Serbia.

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