Wednesday 14 May 2014

W is for Waiting: Athens’ First Cemetery

Athens’ First Cemetery (Πρώτο Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών)

Wikipedia Commons 

The belief in the eternal life of the soul and the integrity of the body underpins many of the traditions surrounding death and mourning.

The Orthodox Church puts a strong emphasis on the positive aspect of death: the deceased, while lost to loved ones on earth, is alive with God. Death is merely the separation of the soul from the body and the physical body, once the temple of the soul, will be reunited with the soul at the Last Judgment.(1)

 Oddly enough, the English word cemetery from Greek κοιμητήριον, "sleeping place" encapsulates this idea of waiting somewhat better than the word nekrotafio, (burial place of the dead), most often used in Greece today.

Cremation is forbidden by the Greek Orthodox Church on the grounds that it represents the violent destruction of the eternal physical body and suggests a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming. Organ donation was once prohibited using this same logic, but the Church has relaxed its stand on that while still refusing to consider cremation.

How this insistence on the integrity of a dead body fits in with dismembering the bodies of saints for distribution or ‘translation’ to churches and monasteries is never quite explained. Nor is the fact that cremation, allowed for health reasons, apparently does not affect the final union.

The Roman Catholic Church, while still preferring interment, has sanctioned cremation since 1997.(2)

 Critics of the Orthodox stand, and there are many, claim a financial motive because of the many memorial services held after death. There may be some truth in that but memorial services could be held over urns as well. The singular lack of enthusiasm of funeral directors is more likely to be strictly financial.

 Tradition in Orthodoxy is a compelling force and it has caused some strange burial traditions to arise because of space problems. The upshot of this ‘tradition’ vs ‘space available’ means that in Greece bodies are usually buried for a period of three years, at which time the bones are collected in a small ceremony with a family member present (this is required by law) and a priest (not apparently legally required), washed with wine, and placed in boxes in a communal ossuary on the grounds of the cemetery. If the body has not disintegrated, a problem that is more and more prevalent because of the use of drugs in treating illnesses, the body is often somewhat unceremoniously reburied in a more obscure part of the cemetery and then dug up and boxed at a later date - unless the family is willing to pay for a longer use of the grave.

This ossuary in the First Cemetery is rather grand. The one in our village, recently refurbished used to contain sacks and wooden boxes of bones behind a rusty metal door. It is still plain...

but a lot neater inside.

In the case of family graves, unless the grave is a crypt and thus able to handle multiple burials, the body remains buried until the next family member has need of the space (hopefully the right amount of time will have passed). Then when the grave diggers dig up the grave, the bones of the most recently deceased are either gathered and boxed or placed in a sack at the feet of the person being interred. If this sounds gruesome, I have to say it is.  I was shocked to see the long leg bones of my father-in-law protruding from a sack when my mother-in-law was buried.
Pass by any country cemetery and take a peek into the Ossuary and you will see boxes with the name of the deceased scrawled somewhat unceremoniously on the box.
It makes you think…. There seems to be a disconnect between the reverence for the body and its integrity at burial, and its subsequent fate as time passes.(3)
For those wealthy enough to afford it, or for those deemed contributors to the state, be they bishops, artists, politicians, or warriors, a more stylish way to wait for the Final Judgment is available in the permanent graves of Athens’ First Cemetery.
The Cemetery

Forget about Keramikos, Athens’ ancient cemetery. True, the German school excavated it to the bedrock and then meticulously replaced the graves until they had reproduced its appearance in the classical era – a spot, in fact, that Plato and Socrates would recognize.  That is impressive. But today it comprises parts of only three streets. The Athens’ First Cemetery is an entire city of the dead and its elaborate grave markers would have filled a Periclean aristocrat with envy. It has rightly been called a vast outdoor museum of sculpture.
 The idea of a state sponsored cemetery was a new one at the time. Previously,  bodies were buried inside Athenian churches or around them.  At the same time that this cemetery was created, a law was passed forbidding the older practice.
Just to give you an idea of its present size.
(Unfortunately there is no key to these grave numbers on the Internet.)

From grand to grandiose, personal and small, charmingly pathetic to occasionally bathetic, idiosyncratic to downright strange, this crowded city of marble established by royal decree in 1837 has it all. In its entirety it is a wonderful monument to Greek tastes since the founding of the modern state and a reminder that although you can’t take it with you, money can certainly come in handy in creating a monument to posterity(4).  The names on many tombstones read like a Who’s Who of modern Greece.

The Graves

The archbishops of Greece have pride of place all together just inside the entrance to the left. They are easy to spot because each grave is topped by a bishop’s crown.

That the cemetery was intended as a repository for illustrious Greeks, is illustrated by the large tomb of philanthropist George Averoff near the entrance. He was responsible for refurbishing the Panathenian Stadium in Athens among other things and, although he died in Egypt in 1899, his bones were translated here (a civic saint!) and this grand monument erected in 1908.

I can never visit without pausing to salute one of the greatest and most interesting heroes of the Greek Revolution Theodoros Kolokotronis who died in 1843.  Almost all of his many statues in Greece are equestrian; a notable one on Stadiou Street in front of the old Parliament Building is the best known, but here it sits in magnificent repose:

An admirer has placed a Greek flag over his shoulder

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was the prototype for this cemetery and it may have Oscar Wilde, Modigliani, Balzac and Jim Morrison, but the Athens’ Alfa Nekrotaphio can boast the likes of  Vassilis Tsitanis - Greece’s greatest rembetica composer and bouzouki player, Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis – both Nobel Prize winning poets, the actress Melina Mercouri,  Kostas Palamas, and many, many more.

The imposing rather baroque grave of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was designed in 1892 by Ernst Ziller, the architect of many of Athens’ most famous neoclassical buildings and, fittingly it is an entire classical temple with a frieze around it showing scenes from Troy as well as workmen busy excavating. 

This mausoleum towers over the large entrance square on a higher level to the left. When first completed, it would have had a view of the acropolis.

Ziller himself is buried in the cemetery and I am curious about his monument but I have not yet found his grave. It is not from want of trying. Because photographs are forbidden (5) (this is still a working cemetery) I went to the administration offices to ask permission to photograph and, at the same time to ask for a guide to the cemetery.  A gentleman pointed to a large map high up on the wall with miniscule writing and told me that, if I could name whom I wanted to see, and keep the list to a few names, he would read out the numbers of their graves. I was not prepared for this and not really encouraged to return either. Although the cemetery, run by the municipality of Athens, has quite rightly been declared a Modern Cultural heritage Site, there has been no real civic effort to encourage visitors not on official business. Fair enough, but no one who created grave monuments like many here would really have intended the results to go unappreciated.

Ah well, perhaps it is better without a map. Strolling through the cemetery randomly can be nice too. Running into the resting place of a familiar and revered figure is all the better for it being a bit of a surprise encounter.

Many grave stone are replicas of the ones in Keramikos.

Or harken back to ancient Greece in one way or another:

This  replica (circa 1895) of the Lysikratos Monument in the Plaka was admired and copied in many other cemeteries.

Of course, most have a Christian theme.

Here angels guard the tomb of a Greek Shipping family

There are faux ruined chapels and many rather lovely sentimental compositions like the empty chair below:

The grave of the famous actress Sophia Bembo is often festooned with fresh flowers.

Among other things...

But basically, this area is kept remarkably spic and span.
To add a nice touch, I have to say that the biggest cats I have ever encountered in Athens stroll the cemetery’s tiny ‘streets’ with proprietary  airs.  There is bird song too…
Sometimes a tombstone is very personal and poignant.

The above is the famous tomb of Sofia Afendakis by one of Greece’s greatest modern sculptors  Yiannoulis Chalepas. There is a story here.
 It is said that at the age of eighteen years she poisoned herself for the love of an Italian opera singer when he failed to answer her letters. It turned out that he had not received them and, upon finding out about her death, he too killed himself. Just how the prohibition against suicide was avoided in this case is moot. But her grave is here and quite beautiful.

There are many humbler graves, many with crosses, others with unusual decorations. The founder of the boy scouts in Greece has a scouting hat on his tomb. A favourite of many is this casual life-sized statue below:

There are three chapels in the cemetery: Agioi Theodoroi,  Agios Lazaris (the oldest –dating from 1840), and a small Roman Catholic chapel. They are ordinary architecturally – just there to do the business - but I do remember one unforgettable visit years ago when at least ten rectangular wooden boxes – a bit like shoe boxes- were strewn haphazardly down the stairs of either one of the chapels or the ossuary. Some of them had split open and bones had tumbled out. Apparently these were from rental graves and the annual rents were in arrears (some plots, even here, are for rent).

I have left the politicians until last  - you will find the most recently deceased right at the entrance- not too far from the bishops.  It seems as if this large open space – a huge contrast to the crowded graves beyond - was left with some foresight – to add new heroes of the nation as needed. Melina Mercouris is here as is Andreas Papandreou and many other politicians. Papandreau’s tomb is modest in the extreme…a surprise given his persona in life – but enough..: de mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

The Tomb of Andreas Papandreou

Greek people generally show both respect and real affection for the dead although the actual subject of dying and death is avoided at all costs. Anyone bringing up the dread subject will immediately hear fervent  ftou sous to ward off the evil eye.

A common custom when speaking of the dead is to preface the person being referred to with the word ‘blessed’ as a sign of respect.  I have often seen people walking among graves here and elsewhere and speaking affectionately, casually even, of - or even to- the persons buried. Quite often there are likenesses (either a photo behind glass or a ceramic likeness) which somehow facilitate a potential dialogue.

 Once safely buried with the correct rituals, the dead are still very much part of the community. 

The documentary with English subtitles on the First cemetery by the Greek entertainer and activist Paola illustrates this last point wonderfully. Her anecdotes about the people and graves are not only interesting, they are spontaneous and natural. Some of the dead she visits were personal friends.  She tells the story of Sofia Afendakis better than I do and her comments on the sculpture’s aesthetics are very well put.
If you prefer a less offbeat, more reverent, not to say Protestant, approach to cemeteries with an English commentary, try
Better still, visit.

Smack in the centre of Athens, this wonderful green oasis is just behind the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Walk up Anapafseos  Street ( Eternal Rest Street)  to the entrance. Open 7:30 until sunset.

It’s the big green space bottom right


(1)Just to be clearer, here is an explanation from an Orthodox site: The Last Judgment is not an act of overthrowing, the judgment of the soul at the time of its separation from the body, but rather to effect a union with the transformed, risen body with which the soul will continue to live forever. After the separation, the soul is conscious and, consequently, feels, understands, and in general exercises all the energies of the soul.(Revelation 6:9-10, 7:15; 1 Peter 3: 19; Hebrews 12:23; Luke 16:27-28). It seems there are two judgments in Orthodoxy: The first, or “Particular” Judgment, is experienced by each individual at the time of his or her death, at which time God will decide where the soul is to spend the time until the Second Coming of Christ.
This judgment is believed to occur on the Fortieth day after death. That explains the numerous ceremonies deemed necessary by the Church during this 40 day period. For more, see
 The Orthodox Church shies away from explaining exactly where every single soul is after death. Saints are in Heaven because the Bible says so, but the rest are ‘wherever God decides to put them’ because there is no satisfactory description of place in the Scriptures. Unlike the Roman Catholic church  which prefers a more precise definition, Orthodoxy did not feel the necessity of inventing Purgatory and prefers to leave the subject the ‘mystery’ they believe it is.

 (2)The first cremation in England only took place in 1885. So it is rather a new concept. But, keeping in mind that the Roman Catholic church was part of the Orthodox church for 1000 years and made the transition, surely Orthodoxy too could find a way to accommodate this increasingly popular (and less expensive) form of burial if it chose to do so.

(3)The special situation of the soul in the first forty days before the first judgment may have something to do with this greater initial concern with services for the dead. After the yearly ceremony marking a death, many cease to offer special services at the grave and remember and pray their dead in the many days in the Church Calendar reserved for just this purpose. Orthodoxy believes in the possibility of a change of situation for the souls of the dead through the prayers of the living.

(4) It is estimated by those who know that the cost of a permanent grave in this cemetery could be between 150,000 to 200,000 euros, if available at all. Marble monuments do not come cheap either. Anapafseos Street is lined with marble working concerns, flower shops , and all the other  paraphernalia  required farther up the street.

  (5)I was given to understand that taking photographs with discretion and tact would not be frowned upon although that is not the official line.






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