The Greek burial crisis: With land a valuable resource, the state requires the recycling of cemetery space.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Feb. 28 2011 6:54 AM

Rent-a-Grave

With land a valuable resource, Greece requires the recycling of cemetery space. It's a ghastly business.

Cemetery in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. Click image to expand.
Cemetery in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece

After spending most of their lives in the United States and raising their family here, my grandparents moved back to Greece in the 1990s for their retirement. They settled in Athens, where their children (including my father) would visit them. When they passed away, we had funeral services in the local church, honoring their memory with prayers and bundles of flowers. None of us anticipated that—in 2011, in a First World country—a combination of government and state-church policies would lead to the desecration of their graves.

The Greek Orthodox Church believes that the body, as the "temple of the spirit," must be buried whole to make resurrection possible. Yet with land a valuable resource in Greece, the state requires the recycling of cemetery space. Somepermanent plots are still available—but they can cost up to 150,000 euros (more than $200,000). If you can't afford this extravagance, you must rent a grave, and only for a maximum of three years. By law, once that time is up, a relative must appear at the gravesite to witness a cemetery worker (no priest is present) dig up the grave, exhume the body (often not fully decomposed), pry it from the coffin, and then collapse the bones into a container roughly the size of a shoebox for storage in a communal ossuary.

One way around the problem of space might be cremation. Until recently, the technique was illegal—in deference to the Church, which considers it a pagan custom and a bar to the afterlife. The government finally lifted the ban in 2006. But the catch is that the state has yet to construct any crematoria within the country's borders. And so when a Greek person dies, his family must resort to transportingthe body, with significant red tape and at great expense, to a foreign country that doeshave facilities (often Germany or Bulgaria).

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The reality of what plays out can be even more disheartening than having your grandparents take an unceremonious trip from grave to shoebox. Our closest living relative in Athens, my father's sister, chose not to attend the exhumation—most likely to avoid the horrible spectacle of seeing her parents' partially decomposed bodies dug up. As a result, my grandparents' remains were placed in a mass grave and dissolved with chemicals. Incredibly, this is not that uncommon. If no one shows up on the appointed date, or if you stop payment on the fee for the ossuary, the cemetery destroys the bones.

My family in the United States was deeply distressed at the news, for many reasons: How could we not have been consulted? How is this legal? That very phrase, mass grave, immediately evoked images of ethnic cleansing, of the Holocaust, of bodies unceremoniously piled high, depersonalized—visual shorthand for a complete disrespect for life. My reaction was also one of shame: Only barbaric people would treat their dead this way.

The truth, however, is that what's happening in Greece is not unprecedented. For much of European history, Christian graves have been impermanent. In the Middle Ages, the poor were buried in common graves in the churchyard, and their bones, over time, were removed to the charnel house to make room for the more recently dead. Even the wealthy, who were buried inside the church itself, were later moved into the charnel house. Plagues were also a major cause of churchyard overcrowding, leading to a few creative solutions on the part of the Catholic Church. There are several examples of chapels built from human skeletons, including the ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic, and Rome's famous Capuchin Crypt. With morbid ingenuity, they used bones as building materials in baroque-style ceiling trims, crests, and even massive chandeliers.

By the 1800s, for fear of a public health crisis, major cities such as Paris; London; and Glasgow, Scotland; shifted from churchyard burials to the use of carefully plotted-out cemeteries, often far outside the city limits. Many cemeteries, particularly in France and Italy, leased plots for 10 to 50 years, at which point the family could choose to renew the plot—for a fee. Otherwise, the remains were removed to the charnel house and the gravesite reused.

This remove/reuse practice continues today in parts of Europe where, after two world wars, overcrowding is an even more pressing issue. Italy and France allow for exhumation and removal to an ossuary when necessary—although these countries typically leave more time for decomposition than Greece, and don't share Greece's bear-witness-or-we-pull-the-trigger approach. In Sweden, after 25 years, the law requires that cemetery workers dig up the coffin, dig the grave even deeper, and then bury another casket in the earth above it. The United Kingdom, resistant to any disturbance to graves since the Burial Act of 1857, is now trying a similar method—but only with remains that are more than 100 years old.