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Serbian undertakers live it up at spooky annual ball

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Požarevac (Serbia) (AFP)

Platters groaning with food, free-flowing drinks and spirited songs and dances: one could mistake it for a Serbian wedding were it not for the gigantic coffin-shaped cake at the annual ball for undertakers.

Set in a cavernous restaurant hall in eastern Serbia, the event is an opportunity for hundreds of funeral workers to take a night off and celebrate while doing a bit of business on the side.

Dressed to the nines, guests gathered this year in Pozarevac, a riverside city home to the grave of a man whose legacy still haunts the war-scarred Balkans: former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

The festival's organiser, Radisa Mihajlovic, made his name in the profession by driving the hearse that transported the former leader's remains from Belgrade to the family plot where he was buried in 2006.

In Mihajlovic's line of work, however, managing such a funeral is an "honour".

"It was fantastic publicity, and transporting a president is no small thing, no matter what people think of him," he told AFP.

"When they asked me if I was up to this, of course I accepted immediately," added the 66-year-old, who goes by the name of Drdna.

- Dancing, drinking and networking -

The atmosphere was lively as some 300 guests feasted and took to the floor for the kolo, a traditional dance performed in a circle, with romantic folk songs setting the rhythm.

In a profession where day-to-day work is grim, the "Grobarijada" festival is an opportunity to lighten up.

"In this business, there are sad moments all year round and it's a way to briefly forget our sadness. We also have feelings," says Mihajlovic, who is preparing for retirement.

But some work is on the agenda too, with guests mingling to make professional contacts.

"The bottom line is that everyone involved with funeral homes can gather here, exchange ideas, experiences and maybe even do business," Mihajlovic said.

His son Milan, who will take over the family business, adds: "We meet up with friends and also network".

Before the dancing, the elaborate coffin cake was wheeled out in a cloud of dry-ice fog while sparklers shot up behind.

As the crowd cheered, Mihajlovic speared the cake with a large wooden stake, a weapon from local lore that is used to slay vampires -- a word which hails from the Serbian language.

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