Lack of space and faltering economy complicate Greek burials
ATHENS – Row upon row of small rectangular metal boxes fill a dimly-lit room at the First Cemetery of Athens. Most are stacked on shelves. Others rest atop dusty lockers. Some are piled on the floor.
Inside these boxes are bones – the earthly remains of countless dead Greeks who did not have enough money to be buried for more than a few years in one of the overcrowded cemeteries of this overcrowded nation.
The boxes of bones at the First Cemetery of Athens, the country’s most prestigious burial ground, are an obscure but telling bit of evidence of the lingering economic crisis that torments Greeks not only while they live but follows them into the grave as well.
“The cost of living and dying is very expensive in Greece,” Athens resident Helen Mantekas said.
In case the lesson is lost, a sign on the wall makes it clear: if the rent on these boxes goes unpaid, the bones inside them will be thrown away, tossed into one of many mass graves located at the Third Cemetery of Athens outside the city.
Dying and being buried in Greece is not only expensive, it’s complicated too.
Cemeteries are overcrowded and, as with so much else in Greece, the rules are different for rich and poor.
For example, while cremation is widely mentioned as an obvious solution to the financial burden for the poor and middle class, it is impossible in Greece. There is no crematorium anywhere in the country because the Greek Orthodox Church, whose voice in social and cultural matters remains powerful, opposes cremation.
While church officials decry cremation as an inhumane practice, the nation’s current burial process can be brutally painful for families – sometimes requiring an exhumation ceremony that can border on the macabre.
While each Greek cemetery has slightly different rules, most in Athens charge an upfront cost for burial, which guarantees that a body will remain in the ground for at least three years. After those three years, the body is exhumed – if it has fully decomposed – and the bones are placed in a metal box. Yearly rent must be paid for these above-ground boxes; if a family is unable to do so, or forgets, the bones of their loved one are placed in a mass grave.
Over the past 15 years, Athanasia Liolios buried both her parents in Serres, the small village in Northern Greece from which her family comes.
There, Liolios did not have to pay rent to bury her parents in the small local cemetery. But the burials there were only temporary.
Seven to eight years after death, the bodies had to be dug up. Too many people are dying in Serres and there is not enough space.
Liolios said the township started nagging her to exhume the body of her mother, who died 13 years ago, and move it to one of the metal boxes, which she compared to drawers.
As is commonplace, the family held another memorial service when the body was exhumed.
“Each time, it’s emotional,” Liolios said. “I open the sheet and I see the bones of my mom there. And I think about how at one time they were alive.”
“I’m thinking about my dad,” who died seven years ago, she said. “And I’m saying ‘Here I go again.”
Liolios, who moved to the U.S. from Greece in the 1970s, said she had to step out of the cemetery and collect herself when they dug up the bones of her mother. She could not bear the emotional toll of the experience, could not look at the bones as they were taken out of the coffin.
This happens often, said two priests who work at the First Cemetery of Athens and do three to seven funerals there per week. The priests said they have gotten used to seeing family members run out of the cemetery weeping when a loved one is exhumed.
If a person is exhumed too early, the service becomes even more painful for the family gathered.
“A person may not be completely dissolved,” explained Mitsis Nikolaos, a manager for the Ministry of Athens, the local governing body. This is especially true, he said, if the person died from cancer and had chemotherapy drugs in their system.
Liolios said her family went through this with her brother-in-law, who had to be reburied for a couple more years after the exhuming ceremony until the body fully dissolved.
In this case, Nikolaos said the body is usually reburied and in another year or two, it is checked on again to see if body is fully dissolved.
At the Third Cemetery of Athens, a massive plot of land outside of the city, the cemetery is divided accordingly: a section of family plots for the wealthy, a section of graves for those who will eventually be exhumed and a section of makeshift graves for those who were exhumed and have not been completely decomposed.
Shelves containing those boxes of bones are interspersed between the sections. The mass graves, which have metal cellar-like doors on top of them, are located in the back of the cemetery.
Families weep openly as they walk through, no matter how long it has been since a loved one’s death. On the anniversary of a death, it is customary for family and friends to return to the grave, often bringing food and standing for hours remembering the person.
While the bureaucratic burial process does not reflect it, Greeks view the cemetery as a sacred place where they come to honor and respect the dead. Photographs of the dead are not only engraved in headstones but also taped to the boxes of bones and perched atop the mass graves.
Myrsini Apospori, 19, pauses at the mass grave which contains her grandmother’s bones. She said she regrets not bringing a memento to place on top. The bones of six or seven people are inside this grave; some of their families have left pictures and flowers.
Apospori’s grandmother ended up in this mass grave but not because her family could not pay the rent on the above-ground box. Apospori said her grandfather developed dementia and forgot to pay the rent one month; her grandmother’s bones were quickly moved to the mass grave.
After a Sunday service not long ago at the church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos, or “She Who is Quick to Hear,” Mantekas and her longtime friend Maria Vlami stood outside arguing about cremation.
“When I was 20, I thought it was good,” Vlami said. She is now opposed to the idea due to her religious beliefs.
Mantekas doesn’t agree.
“If I die, who cares?” Mantekas said. “I say, burn me away.”
“Priests have reasons,” Vlami said. “It’s written in our religion, in the New Testament. … It’s dogma. In Orthodoxy, we don’t change anything.”
Mantekas interjects: “I think they will …”
Titos Garefalakis, a high-ranking priest in Athens’ Greek Orthodox Church, said he believes only two percent of Athenians actually believe in cremation.
From his office at the cathedral of Athens, known as the Metropolis, Garefalakis explained the church’s view plainly: cremation will always be wrong.
“The Church respects the human body even if they’re dead,” he said. “The phenomenon [of cremation] came from the U.S. ... We believe the dead body still has its worth. It still has its soul, even after death.”
He said the Greek Orthodox Church will never approve the building of a crematorium in Greece and will keep its official policy of not overseeing a funeral in which the deceased has been cremated.
Outside the church in Monastiraki, near the city’s tourist center, the two friends Mantekas and Vlami said they had heard of a few Greek Orthodox priests doing funerals in which the person has been cremated. Many others staunchly oppose it, following the church’s official stance on the matter, they said.
“It depends on the priest and who they believe in more, money or Christ,” Vlami said.
Months earlier, Mantekas buried her mother, Rose, in Karpenisi, a village less than 200 miles away in central Greece. Luckily, Mantekas explained, her mother has a family plot in her village, so she will remain buried indefinitely.
“Here [in Athens], they’re making a lot of money from death,” she said.
In terms of decreasing the cost of dying, Nikolaos, the ministry manager, was somewhat optimistic about the future of cremation in Athens.
“It’ll happen within the next 30 years,” he said. “They will make it very big. We need a very big crematorium because people from other parts of Greece will want to come there.”
Nikolaos said that currently, the closest crematorium is in Bulgaria. Therefore, with travel, the price of cremating a loved one and bringing the body back to Greece for burial (if one can find a Greek Orthodox priest who will do the funeral) is more than the price of any burial in Greece.
If a crematorium were to be erected in Greece, priests who work at the First Cemetery of Athens said they believe many Greek Orthodox faithful would remain afraid of what would happen to them in the afterlife if they were to be cremated.
“The Christian people don’t think that is the way to die,” said Father George, a priest who works at the First Cemetery of Athens. “The people will still be afraid, but only the families that have money who will keep with tradition.”
For the middle and lower classes, however, they may be forced to go against the tradition of their church, due to financial and emotional costs of the current process.
“It’s painful,” Nikolaos said. “You cannot be untouched by it.”