Burial in Greece: Not Exactly the End of the Story
A new project for a blog called The First cemetery of Athens: Fables of Identity (1) has meant visiting Athens’ First Cemetery quite a lot lately to identify the graves of the famous and their imposing monuments. It is a wonderful place, on the surface anyway.
But there is a dark underside to all that glorious marble and beautiful foliage and it is this: in Greece today, many of the dead do not stay buried for long…
Greeks often use the word Nekrotafio (meaning the burial of the dead) for cemeteries, although the word koimiterio (κοιμητήριο) from which our word cemetery is derived, is more apt, expressing the Christian idea more clearly. It means a sleeping place.
The Orthodox dead are not quite dead. Their souls do not go to Purgatory like the Catholics. Purgatory is not in the Orthodox lexicon; their actual status after death is somewhat mysterious, like so many concepts in Orthodoxy. There is, however, the idea that the dead can be affected by our prayers and certainly our prayers for the dead can even affect to some extent their ultimate fate when judgment day finally arrives. In this sense, those buried are connected with the living and the Church until the Second Coming (Parousia) when their bodies will be reunited with their souls in heaven.
For this reason, many ceremonies are held at the grave sites of the dead during the first year and usually on the anniversary of the death thereafter.
Cremation is forbidden by the Orthodox Church for reasons that made sense a long time ago: that, because of the Incarnation, the flesh was also made immortal and because cremation was a pagan practice and therefore, by definition, bad. The echoes of Hell fire and brimstone involved in the cremation of remains did not make the idea very attractive to new Christians either.
According to any Orthodox website (2), the Church supports the idea of the inviolability of the body and therefore insists on inhumation with all of the attendant services and respect shown for the dead. That was fine, I suppose, in the days when the dead stayed buried…
Population growth and crowded cities have changed burial customs radically. Now, in Greece, a family has the choice: either pay for a permanent grave site (3) in the local cemetery (usually a family grave) or rent a grave for three years and then exhume the body, wash the bones in wine, and place them in an ossuary in the cemetery – usually for another fee, in city cemeteries anyway.
Even the purchase of a family grave does not ensure that the body rests in peace. When there is a new death in the family and space is limited, the body is dug up. In the case of a single family grave, the bones might be placed in a sack at the foot of the new coffin until burial number three (don’t ask why), or the bones are gathered and placed in an ossuary. I had what I can only call the macabre experience of seeing my father-in-law’s thigh bones sticking out of a gunny sack at one end of the grave, newly opened for my mother-in-law.
A Large Family Grave in the First cemetery of Athens
A large family grave, like those in the First Cemetery in Athens, is built with future burials in mind and a large underground room is built with small drawer like spaces in the walls to accommodate the bones of loved ones if the space for many full sized coffins is too small.
So, even in the case of a family grave, the bodies are disturbed, rendered into pieces, boxed – then placed in the vault in acceptably small packages (the thigh bones determine the size of the new container).
Rent a Grave
In big cities like Athens, most people rent a grave for three years – the time it is estimated that a body needs to disintegrate. Then there are hard choices. Usually the marble surrounding the grave is reusable and the headstone detachable so that, if, for a suitable fee, a small square plot is available, the body, neatly packaged, is reburied and the original headstone reused over the tiny grave.
The other choice, as mentioned above, is to place the bones in the ossuary on site or in special squares very much like safety deposit boxes placed inside the cemetery walls – for a fee.
Problems No One Wants To Discuss
With the advent of wonder drugs, bodies no longer disintegrate on demand. The disinterment at the three year mark, must legally be attended by a family member (a priest is optional – cemeteries are run by the municipality and, in fact, are a municipal business) and, quite often, the grave diggers have bad news: the body is not quite ready. The same grave can then be rented by the month (at quite a large fee in big cemeteries) until nature has done its work, or the body can be temporarily reburied in a less expensive spot until nature allows the transference of bones to an ossuary – or the body can be abandoned – in which case, it will be buried in a common grave with some disintegrating agent and that is that - not quite the respect for the human body envisioned by the Orthodox Church.
Most of my Greek friends do not like to talk about this (death and taxes!). In fact talking about death is a no no, accompanied by spitting against the evil eye, but because of my new project with my friend Filia on the First Cemetery of Athens, the subject has come up enough to make talking about their own painful family experiences possible. The truth is that many people feel compelled to abandon their loved one’s body after three years whereas wealthier members of the population can afford to purchase a lifetime single grave site and stay buried.(4)
The economic crisis has made abandoning bones to a common and unidentified grave an even more likely choice.
If people do not pay, the bones are exhumed by the cemetery and the gravesite re-allotted. I was disturbed by what I saw on my way up to Section Four one day at the back of Agioi Theodorioi Church in The First Cemetery.
I am assuming these are the bones of those who could not pay. But what is curiouser (aside from the venue in a shed) is that all the bones in the box appear to be the same size. I am flummoxed… Any ideas?
Time for the Church to Rethink Burial Customs
There is a lot of bitterness today about these temporary burials, their cost, and the gut wrenching necessity of attending these exhumations.
Although a crematorium has been on the books for Athens and Patras for several years now, the Church has said it will not bury cremated bodies with Orthodox honours because that would be a desecration the body.
Obviously, there is a tremendous gulf between the religious theory behind inhumation and the present reality. Some might call it hypocrisy – especially after attending the disinterment of a child or parent.
Cemeteries in Greece are run by the municipalities and are a business. Even a huge cemetery like The First Cemetery in Athens has no resident priest. They are brought in for the funeral service and have no legal say in how the cemetery is run. But I have yet to find a priest who has expressed any real distress over disinterment although they are most often present -invited by the family (for a fee) to give the ordeal the dignity of a religious rite of passage.
The implications of disinterment versus the ‘sacredness’ of the human body is just not on the Church’s radar - and it should be.
It is time for a change.
(1) The new blog ‘The First cemetery of Athens’ by Filia Xilas Pattakou and myself is scheduled to be up and running in June 2016!
(2) http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/sanctity-of-human-life says: Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the “kernel of wheat” and the “body” has been intentionally destroyed.
(3) A permanent grave in one of the best parts of the First Cemetery in Athens can cost as much as 100.000 euros – in a less prominent part, perhaps 25,000. See http://www.kathimerini.gr/337028/article/epikairothta/ellada/h-varia-viomhxania-toy-pen8oys