A Greek drama: 'Cremation isn't allowed'

  by Frank Bruni NYT  Friday, June 27, 2003
ATHENS -  In another country, the promise that Antony Alakiotis made to an elderly friend would be easy to keep. But a Greek's last rights are limited, and what that friend has requested for his afterlife defies convention and is not authorized by law.

He wants his body burned, and he wants Alakiotis to see to it. In Greece, alone among the 15 nations in the European Union, cremation does not exist.

Alakiotis is waging a vigorous campaign to change that, and not simply for his 77-year-old friend. "It's inconceivable to me that cremation isn't allowed here," he said in an interview here earlier this week. Cremation amounts to "the last wish" of many people, he said, expressing outrage that such a wish would not "be respected in a country that prides itself on being the birthplace of democracy."

For more than five years, Alakiotis has channeled his ire into the Committee for the Foundation of a Cremation Center in Greece. Over recent months, he and others with the group have intensified their efforts, riddling lawmakers with letters and calls and getting international cremation advocates to take more interest in Greece's situation.

It is a peculiar one, reflecting the tenacious sway of the Greek Orthodox Church, and it is made stranger by severe overcrowding in cemeteries and a ruthlessly rapid turnover of graves.

Death is different here: A Greek's final resting place is usually not the first one. Most bodies are exhumed after three years in a rented plot so that the next corpses can be buried, often within 24 hours. The exhumations must be monitored by friends or relatives, who may see something messier than a skeleton.

"Because the ground here has been used so much, sometimes the body hasn't decomposed enough," said Dimitra Kollia, an administrator at the Athens First Cemetery, the largest of three public cemeteries in the city. "That's traumatic."

In those cases, Kollia said, the remains get interred anew, in shallower graves that are more exposed to the elements. The goal is to end up with a set of bones that can be tucked into a sort of overgrown shoebox and stacked on the library-like shelves of an ossuary.

That dark journey is why some Greeks say that cremation must - and will - be explicitly approved by new legislation. Current law leaves the legal status of the practice ambiguous, discouraging the establishment of any crematoriums.

"It's important to do it yesterday, for the very simple reason that we will gain cemetery space," said the Athens mayor, Dora Bakoyanni, who has supported such legislation for years.

Cremation advocates also note that the Olympic Games, to be held in Athens next year, will put Greece in a media spotlight, inviting scrutiny of the country while giving it a chance to glow.

One of the questions they ask lawmakers is whether a ban on cremation suits the dynamic image that the Greek government, which surprised skeptics by meeting the economic criteria for entry into the euro zone, has been trying to project.

But Greece, more than the other European nations that it considers its peers, teeters awkwardly between tradition and modernity, struggling for balance as it absorbs a recent influx of immigrants and adjusts to a diversifying population.

The debate over cremation illustrates that.

Cremation advocates point out that Greece's roughly 11 million people include at least hundreds of thousands whose religions, like Roman Catholicism and Buddhism, sanction the practice. But the Greek Orthodox Church does not, and even today, about nine of every 10 Greek citizens are baptized in that faith.

"Christ himself was buried, not burned," said Bishop Theoklitos Koumarianos, a church spokesman, adding: "Our church honors the body. It doesn't throw it in a crematorium."

While church leaders say they do not object to cremation for Greeks who are not Orthodox Christians, they have also expressed fears that the existence of crematoriums in Greece could give church members ideas.

And while church leaders say they do not oppose a new law, cremation advocates say that those leaders have campaigned behind the scenes against such legislation.

Prime Minister Costas Simitis already inflamed church leaders three years ago by ordering religious affiliation removed from the national identity cards that Greeks carry. His government seems loath to do battle with them again.

"The issue is a delicate one," said Vassiliki Koutsouba, the chief press officer for the Ministry of the Interior, which has jurisdiction over the issue. "The church, you see, is an important factor."

At present, people who die in Greece can be cremated only in other countries, to which their bodies must be transported at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Cremation advocates say that getting the ashes back to Greece can be tricky because remains are not supposed to be handled outside the country's mortuaries and cemeteries.

"I'd just pop them in my suitcase," said Susann Helms, the president of the pro-cremation foundation, envisioning what she would do if her husband died before she did. "I'm not trying to sound unsentimental."

Helms, 60, is Australian, while her husband, George Vlassis, 64, is Greek. They live - and could die - here. But they are prepared for post-mortem traveling, she said, if that is what it takes to get cremated, which both of them want.

Alakiotis, 48, said that he also wanted to be cremated, but could not accept that his body - or his friend's - would need to be packed up and shipped away. "I think it's barbaric," he said, "to have to be a refugee in death."

The New York Times


A Greek drama: 'Cremation isn't allowed':