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Romanian Cemetery Newcomers Rest in Kitsch

Europe: Historic Bellu graveyard houses the remains of nobility, and of increasing numbers of the 'nouveaux riches' with dubious taste.


BUCHAREST, Romania — First they built lavish lakeside villas. Now Romania's new rich want to strut their prosperity in the afterlife with grandiose graves and tony tombs.

Mausoleums of dubious taste are rising in Bellu cemetery, the final resting place for generations of poets and princes, and its guardians worry that the country's grandest and most genteel graveyard is losing its aristocratic air.

The Rev. Radu Dumitru, an Orthodox priest who manages Bellu, believes it should be turned into a national pantheon this year--its 150th anniversary--to save it from disaster.

"I don't want any more kitsch here," he said.

But money decides who gets buried in Bellu, and there are no rules on the aesthetics of graves.

One mausoleum built in 1997 is an exact imitation of a Greek temple, measuring 12 feet by 12 feet. That wasn't bad in itself, except its owner then had the whole thing encased in panels of white glass.

"It is a faithful copy of a temple, but the glass makes it look like a shop," Dumitru said.

Being buried in Bellu doesn't come cheap. To rest in perpetuity at Bellu costs at least $1,000, and a fancy mausoleum for the whole family can run $5,000. The nation's average monthly salary is $100.

Viorel Catarama, a furniture magnate and politician in his 40s, has built a large tomb that resembles a swanky boutique, complete with a facade of black marble and brass letters above the door that say: "Catarama Family."

Paul Filip, a photographer who has been taking pictures of Bellu since 1977, said it has become "a cemetery for the nouveaux riches."

Built in 1852 for Romania's political and cultural elite, Bellu is estimated to hold the remains of as many as 50,000 people, though nobody knows for sure.

The 69-acre cemetery is unkempt, with its graves squeezed tightly together. Avenues are lined with lime trees, maples, poplars and horse chestnuts, some more than 100 years old.

Before the collapse of communist rule in 1989, Bellu was a popular destination for visitors seeking a glimpse of beautiful architecture and culture.

Renowned poet Mihai Eminescu is buried in one of Bellu's simpler graves, which is scattered with bouquets of violet pansies and gnarled beeswax candles. Ornate yet gracious 19th century mausoleums belonging to the Ghica, Sturdza and Cantacuzino princely families display the wealth of the pre-communist aristocracy.

But many treasures have been plundered in recent years. Filip said thieves known as the "Cemetery Mafia" stole four copper sphinxes, each weighing close to a ton, from the grave of a World War I hero. Slabs of marble, bronze artifacts, and sculptures are pilfered in the dead of night.

Metal works of art are melted down and sold as raw material; marble is recycled for other graves. The sculptures were stolen to order, Filip speculated.

In 1978, the wife of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu reportedly wanted to demolish most of Bellu cemetery after gold coins were discovered in a politician's vault. Ceausescu was preoccupied with other projects, and his wife, Elena, was never able to pursue her hunt for more coins.

Like Dumitru, Filip thinks there should be some control over what kind of memorials can be built at Bellu.

"Pride pushes people to build ostentatious graves," said Filip, who has spent hundreds of hours photographing how daylight and twilight play on the mausoleums.

But he's not sure he wants to end up there himself.

"I don't want to be buried there for pride, but as Bellu's chronicler it might be fitting," he said. "But heaven forbid I have a kitsch grave!"

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