With land a valuable resource, Greece requires the recycling of cemetery space. It's a ghastly business.
In the East, there are more graphic (to my mind) methods of handling the bodies of the dead. Not far from modern-day Greece, in what is now Turkey, the ancient Çatalhöyük culture left their dead out in the open, to be picked clean by vultures until the bones were ready for collection and burial. (Some skulls were found set aside, plastered, and painted to resemble the deceased person's human face.) "Sky burial" occurs even now: The Parsis of Bombay place their dead atop the three-centuries-old Towers of Silence (cylindrical structures with tall internal platforms) for "cleansing" by birds. Tibetans in the Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions also practice sky burial—and sometimes use the skulls to create elaborate kapalas, bowls carved and decorated for ritual offerings.
Such intimate contact with the remains of the dead is unheard of in contemporary American culture. Back in the early 19th century, families would wash and prepare their dead for burial, and even build their own caskets. But shortly after embalming was introduced during the Civil War—to make the shipping of soldiers' bodies across long distances possible—chemical preparation, makeup, and formal "display" in a funeral home became customary. Death became an industry. As a pagan friend of mine put it in an e-mail, "Clearly, if you are going to clean the skull of a fellow monk to make an offering bowl to the gods, you have a very different perspective than those who talk about eternal life, pump bodies full of chemicals, and seal people vacuum-pack-style into coffins."
Today we treat our dead predominantly in one of three ways: burial, entombment aboveground, or cremation—with nearly half the country (46 percent) projected to choose cremation by 2015. Even though cemetery overcrowding has finally reached our geographically sprawling country, the United States, like the United Kingdom, subscribes to a "final resting place" view of burial: according to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Dougherty v. Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company), you cannot disturb a body without good reason.
Some Americans are trying to regain a certain level of intimacy with death. The green burial movement couples environmental concerns with land preservation—it rejects embalming and recommends burial in a shroud or biodegradable coffin. Funeral pyres have cropped up in Texas and Colorado, offering a primitive, organic method of cremation. Alternatives abound. Since 1965's Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, Americans have had the right to donate their bodies to science (about 8,000 are needed annually for medical training). Sweden's Promessa company may even bring us a far more radical alternative to burial: "promession," the ability to freeze-dry and compost human remains and use them to plant a memorial tree in that person's memory. Based on a method originally developed in Eugene, Ore., the procedure will likely be ready this year and already has a licensee in the United Kingdom.
In taking a look across cultures, it seems to me that the real problem with the Greek system is not the policy of exhumation, but the lack of choice. The Greek status quo is a compromise between spiritual belief and practical (and political) circumstance that is both emotionally difficult and impractical: There is a serious need for more options in how the dead are handled. Fortunately, it's now possible that, after years of waiting, at least one alternative is on the way: Just recently, the municipality of Zografou, in Athens, approved the construction of Greece's first crematorium, and the Committee for the Right of Cremation in Greece anticipates that the local government will announce an international competition for building plans in the coming months.
That's too late for my family. Now we have nothing—no bones, or dust—to give a physical location to the memory of my grandparents. Instead, we are planning to buy a plot in Trinity Cemetery in New York, alongside the Catholic side of the family—my mother's relatives who had migrated to the city in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. In place of their bones, we're not sure what we'll deposit. Personal relics, maybe—the objects that they lived with every day. My grandfather's tools from his days as a tailor? My grandmother's fur stole (she was a sort of Mediterranean Bette Davis)? What is a gravesite but a place to revisit memories of the people we loved? Those, at least, cannot be disinterred, crushed, or dissolved.
Alex Mar is a writer/director whose work has also appeared in New York magazine and Rolling Stone. Her first film, the documentary American Mystic, will be released this year.
Photograph of Greek cemetery by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.