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Grave: Between Greece’s crowded cemeteries and a religious ban on cremation, burial plots have become a temporary stop for some.

By Richard Boudreaux

Los Angeles Times

ATHENS, Greece — The bureaucratic notice came by mail, reminding the family that its three-year lease on the burial plot was expiring. The family was advised to contact the Athens First Cemetery to arrange for exhumation of the deceased.

Lucas Zamanos, a retired banker, answered the summons expecting something more dignified for his late father-in-law than the scene that ensued — a scene still etched in his mind seven years later.

A cemetery worker wearing a surgical mask dug up the grave and, finding the body not fully decomposed, stood on it and pried it from the coffin piece by piece. As Zamanos watched in horror and his wife fainted, the masked man wrapped flesh and bones into a sheet and pushed them in a wheelbarrow to a corner of the cemetery for unceremonious reburial in a shallow, unmarked ditch.

After six months there, the bones were ready to be dug up and moved again — for storage in a vault across town.

The banker went through a new ordeal two years later when his own father died. The route to his final resting place was quicker but covered more miles and involved extraordinary costs and red tape: He was cremated in Poland.

‘Migrants in death’

Such is the macabre choice of journeys Greece offers its dead. Although it is unable to provide everyone an affordable plot for permanent burial, the country forbids cremation on religious grounds, the only country in continental Europe with such a ban.

Zamanos and others are leading a crusade against regulations that, in their words, make Greeks “migrants in death.” A bill being drafted by the Socialist government and supported by a majority in Parliament would legalize cremation in Greece.

But the cremation movement is running up against the powerful Greek Orthodox Church, which deems the practice contrary to Greece’s constitutionally recognized state religion. The church, which has baptized more than 90 percent of Greece’s 10.7 million people, sees the debate as a challenge not only to its political clout but also to its sway over a people trying to reconcile its religious identity with the values of an increasingly unified Europe.

Senior clerics say they no longer object to cremation for the non-Orthodox in Greece. But once crematoriums are built, the clerics say, they doubt that any legal measure can stop Orthodox Christians from using them. Controversy over the practice now centers within the church on whether funeral services should be allowed for members who choose cremation.

The dispute pits Christian tradition against the modern realities of Greece’s overcrowded cemeteries.

According to tradition, widely accepted in Greece for the past 1,500 years, the human body is a temple of God; burying it intact after death is the ideal way to prepare it for the resurrection. Any meddling in the natural process of decay is condemned as a desecration of the temple, an offense against God.

Burial, declares Archbishop Christodoulos, primate of the Greek church, is “the ancient custom of civilized peoples.”

Another desecration

But according to modern reality, burial in Greece is usually temporary. It is only the beginning of a process that, in the eyes of many Greeks, desecrates the body in its own way.

“We’re talking about a lack of responsibility for the dead,” says Zamanos, 70, an Orthodox Christian who believes that cremation is something pure and glorious. “Exhumation is humiliating for the deceased. It’s barbaric, beyond tradition.”

To a casual visitor, the First Cemetery, where the banker’s father-in-law was exhumed, looks like a splendid showcase of Greek burial culture — a 42-acre museum of sculptured memorials shaded by tangerine trees.

“People come often to clean their family plots,” says cemetery administrator Dimitra Kollia. “They need a specific burial space where they can sit, reflect and have some contact with their departed.”

But much of that space is not theirs to keep. “Look at the social differences here,” she says, pointing out that the cemetery has separate sectors for grave owners and renters — the equivalent of rich and middle-class neighborhoods.

Owners pay $18,750 to $118,750 for permanent family plots in the First Cemetery. Renters pay $650 to $1,050 for a three-year burial, with the option to stay up to one year longer at $155 per month. After that, exhumation is mandatory, as it is in most other cemeteries, to make way for new bodies.

As Athens runs out of room for new burial ground, prices for both kinds of plots are rising and renters have begun to outnumber owners. Nearly every family has had to dig up a loved one’s bones and move them to an ossuary, a compact vault that cemeteries rent for about $60 a year.

This, for many Greeks, is an indignity compounded by dread; the overworked soil in most urban cemeteries can no longer decompose a body in three or four years. Many Greeks simply stop paying rent, prompting cemeteries to move abandoned remains to common pits or dissolve them with chemicals.

Orthodox Christian advocates of cremation have seized on the rising costs and repulsive consequences of burial in urging their church to change its position.

“We need a more tolerant stance that can be reconciled with our faith,” says Maria Damanaki, a member of Parliament. “Besides, Greece is in Europe. We cannot appear to be so backward.”

Damanaki wants the Orthodox clergy to follow the Vatican, which favors the Christian tradition of burial but stopped opposing cremation in 1963. Roman Catholic teaching now forbids cremation only when it is meant to show a lack of faith in the body’s resurrection.

All Eastern Orthodox churches ban cremation for the faithful, but the clergy in many countries sometimes ignore the ban and hold funeral rites over ashes or bodies bound for the fire. In such predominantly Orthodox countries as Romania and Bulgaria, cremation became legal under Communist rule, leaving Greece and the isle of Cyprus as the only European countries still forbidding it.

Cremation abroad

Bulgaria is the most popular venue for Greek cremations. One undertaker in the Greek city of Salonika says he arranges transport to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, and cremation there for about eight Greeks per month, for a price of $2,500 each.

The government’s agreement to draft a cremation bill has put the church in an awkward position.

Orthodoxy is enjoying a revival, reflected in rising approval ratings and church attendance. Christodoulos, since May 1998 the church’s dynamic leader, says it’s OK for young worshipers to wear miniskirts and body-piercing jewelry during Mass and livens up his sermons with one-liners.

But while he may be more popular than any politician, Christodoulos can hardly afford to challenge a government that pays his clergy’s salaries and has pondered, as recently as last year, a formal separation of church and state.

The church’s ruling body, the Holy Synod, is to meet in October, and at least one bishop has voiced the dissenting view that there’s no difference between cremation and burial. Church spokesman Theoklitos Koumarianos says the church is listening to its flock.

“The life of the church is not a static thing,” he says. “We cannot ignore the needs and the culture of the people. We do not impose tradition. The church comes and sees what the people want and recognizes it.”

Originally published on Sep 11 1999

from the Sun Journal section of the Baltimore Sun