Recently I catalogued an interesting, rather sad, file that reminded me of the privilege we have of living in the age of antibiotics. Amongst Dimitrije Mitrinović’s more personal papers is a file of letters from friends and family, many of which relate to the deaths of his brothers Milivoje and Ljubivoje, as well as his niece Lilija, all within a few years of each other.
Announcement of the death of Ljubivoje Mitrinović.
Milivoje Mitrinović had followed his brother to Britain, and was studying Journalism at the University of London when he died, seemingly of tuberculosis. Letters from English correspondents show that he was well-liked in his new home and had clearly made an impression on Dimitrije Mitrinović’s friends.
Ljubivoje (known as Ljubo) died in Belgrade in 1931, nursed by his sister, Vera Mitrinović. By this time Dimitrije Mitrinović’s friend, the travel writer and novelist Stephen Graham, was living in Yugoslavia and had fallen in love with Vera. A moving letter written in the difficult time before Ljubo’s death documents their relationship. In the letter, dated January 1930, Graham appeals to Dimitrije Mitrinović to help Vera. Graham feared that her studies were suffering under the burden of caring for Ljubo. He worried about her finding herself in a situation where she would have to deal with Ljubo’s body by herself, as he looked likely to die in the one room flat they shared. Most serious of all, Graham feared for Vera’s health. How could she avoid catching tuberculosis, living so closely with her infected brother? Efforts to give Ljubo money to pay rent on a second room had gone awry and Graham asks Dimitrije Mitrinović to advise his siblings.
After Ljubivoje Mitrinović’s death, Vera still seems to have borne the brunt of the burden on the family. According to another letter from Graham, she paid for the funeral expenses herself. However, I don’t think Dimitrije Mitrinović should be seen as a cruel or miserly brother in all this. The archive also contains evidence of him sending money to Vera and trying to get back to Yugoslavia to visit. Graham’s pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears!
It is certainly easy to get drawn into the personal tragedies and dramas of these letters, but it also struck me that there might be some interest in letters of condolence as a “genre”. They are a way of exploring how we mark death, and the type of language or ideas we use to try to comfort the living or express grief. Those in the Mitrinović Archive might be particularly interesting, as so many of those writing them had studied psychology, religion and philosophy, which might have shaped their responses to illness and death.