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.

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.

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