Yugoslavia's last king to be buried in Serbia

LIBERTYVILLE -- Crown Prince Alexander, son of King Peter II, plans to bring his father's remains back to Serbia.

Some Serbian Americans, though, want to keep the remains of the man they believe is the only king buried in the United States.

Prince Alexander has not set a date for exhuming the body of his exiled father from St. Sava, one of the leading Serbian Orthodox monasteries in the United States, and reburying him in Serbia, but he said it will be soon.

"The plan is - and that is a solid plan - that he'll be brought here," the prince said in a phone interview from his palace in Belgrade.

The king died in Denver in 1970. Communist rule made burial in his former realm impossible, so his will requested interment in St. Sava.

For many Serbian Americans in the Midwest, the king's grave is a source of pride. Several thousand visit the church annually to pay their respects.

"It was his own request to be buried (where he is now)," said Alex Colakovic, sales manager at the Serbian Social Center near Chicago. "I'd rather have him stay here."

The king spent the years before his death visiting exile communities in the United States, England and other countries - often helping raise money for charities. He had apartments in England and France and died after falling ill on a U.S. visit. He was just 47.

He asked to be buried at St. Sava because of the hundreds of thousands of Serbians living in the Chicago area; he also cited admiration for President Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois native, newspaper accounts at the time said.

"I want to rest near my freedom-loving people," the news reports quoted his will as saying. "I must always share their destiny." He was buried in a Yugoslav Air Force uniform, and more than 10,000 people attended his funeral.

Peter II is seen as a heroic but tragic figure. In his 1954 memoir, he described how his life began to spin out of control at age 11 when a government minister broke the news that his father, King Alexander I, had been assassinated and that Peter now was king.

"The minister's wife held me in her arms and I cried," he wrote. "'What has happened?' I kept asking. 'What has happened to Papa? What will happen now?'" He added that "the assassin's bullet ... wrenched me from a happy childhood."

During World War II, the young king refused to ally Yugoslavia with the Nazis, prompting Hitler to invade and drive him into exile. Later, communists confiscated his wealth, forcing him to live the rest of his life abroad.

The head of Serbian Orthodox in the Midwest, whose home overlooks St. Sava's church, spoke lovingly of Peter II. When asked about moving the king's body, he would say only that previous talk of such an idea had upset Serbians in the U.S.

"The monarch is a symbolic representation of the life and values of Serbians," Metropolitan Christopher explained.

But if the king is a symbol to Serbian Americans, that's doubly true for Serbs at home, said Prince Alexander. He compared his father as a Yugoslav hero to America's war dead buried at the national cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

"If you visit Arlington Cemetery, you have heroes there, and they belong there," he said. "In Europe, you have heads of state, and kings and queens who are buried in their own country. Isn't that normal?"

The London-born prince, who advocates restoring the monarchy in a British-style parliamentary system, returned to Serbia in 2001 - after Yugoslavia had split into several independent nations following a deadly civil war.

He bristled when asked if he believed U.S. Serbians might oppose his father's exhumation and reburial.

"They have no option," he said. "He is the head of state of a foreign country. ... So no one can object."

Not all Serbian Americans are upset by the prospect of reburying the king.

"In the end, everybody knows he belongs more there than here," said Father Uros Ocokoljich, a longtime Chicago area Orthodox priest. "And they have a place for him there."

That place is the stately Mausoleum of St. George, a forested hilltop site built 100 years ago near Belgrade, where Peter II's father also is buried. It is a place of reverence for Serbs, as well as a tourist attraction.

Most importantly, Prince Alexander said, reburial in Serbia will correct a historical quirk of fate that led to his father's burial 8,000 kilometers from his beloved home.

"We are now going in a complete circle," he said, "and making things wrong into right."