Extended journey to final rest

SUN JOURNAL

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

September 11, 1999|By Richard Boudreaux | 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.

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