Ashes to Ashes | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.02.2005
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Ashes to Ashes

While some aspects of EU life become increasingly harmonized, funeral rights across the union still vary enormously. Thus far, cremation in Greece is impossible.


In Greece, fire's acceptable for Olympic torches, but not coffins

Sografou is one of the biggest cemeteries in Athens. Like many others in the city, it is so overcrowded that the dead don't have much chance to rest in peace. Three years after burial, the bodies are exhumed to make space for the next coffin. Georgos Vlassis, a 65-year-old pensioner, said he remembers vividly how he had to attend the exhumation of his father.

"I think it’s the worst thing that can happen to a body," he said. "The corpse was exhumed, but it had not totally decomposed. For me and my relatives who had to attend the exhumation it was a traumatic experience. It convinced me that cremation would be the best solution both for the dead and for the grieving relatives."

Traumatic experience

Athen Panorama

Athens: A crowded city with crowded cemetaries

Opening graves and breaking up the coffin is part of the daily routine for Athens cemetery workers. They are quite used to seeing body parts of the corpses that have not fully decomposed, but for the relatives who witness it, it’s often a shock. Angela Daskalaki, head of the Athens cemetery, said there are many factors which hinder decomposition.

"It depends on the quality of the earth and on the clothes the dead are wearing," she said. "Nylon for example is very bad. And it depends on whether there are still traces of medication in the body of the deceased."

Vlassis said he knows about the problems of decomposition and condemns the process of treating corpses with strong chemicals following exhumation.

"It is barbaric," he said. "When I die I don’t want my body to be treated like that. I want to be cremated. That would be really the end."

Mounting pressure

Vlassis and his wife, Susann Helms, settled in Athens just a few years ago. They’re still in good health and enjoying life, but they are looking ahead and have joined a small pressure group.

Das Krematorium der Hamburger Friedhöfe

A coffin is cremated at a Hamburg cemetary

"I come from Australia where my parents and grandparents were cremated," Susann Helms said. "That is a tradition in our family. When I heard that cremation is not allowed in Greece, I joined a committee to press the government to allow the construction of a cremation center.”

That was a few years ago, at a time when the Socialists still held the reins of power in Greece and were promising to pass new legislation. But it never happened because the Socialists were afraid of the Greek Orthodox Church, which condemns cremation as unorthodox. The Church is still a very strong force in Greece.

Mönche vom Kloster Athos

Greek Orthodox monks

"According to our faith, burning is an act of violence against the body," Father Nikolaos Hatzinikolaos of the Greek Orthodox Church said. "Look at nature: It always leaves some remains after the biological end of a corpse. These remains show us that the path has not come to a final end. We believe that man does not come to an end, but that man goes on living."

Politics at play

But Vlassis said he doesn’t believe that the Church opposes cremation purely for religious reasons. Theologically, cremation is not an Orthodox dogma, he said. For example, the Russian, Serb and Bulgarian Orthodox churches have no objections to cremation. Nor, said Vlassis, does the Greek Church in Canada. He said he believes that in Greece, the reasons for this opposition are purely political.

"For the church, it’s just a demonstration of their power," he said. "They oppose legislation that would allow cremation because that would be a symbol of their diminishing influence in society. They want the government to be in fear of the church."

For half a year now the conservatives have been in government. Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis, an influential conservative politician, is a strong supporter of a crematorium being opened.

"We fully support the building of a crematorium in Athens," she said. "It would help ease overcrowding in the cemeteries and it would meet the wishes of many people who would prefer to be cremated."

Europas erstes Krematorium in Gotha

Historic urns at Europe's first crematory in Gotha in eastern Germany

But the most conservatives have a different opinion or choose not to go against the views of the Greek Orthodox Church. So, as with the last government, there seems to be little chance of new legislation in the immediate future. Despite this, Vlassis and his wife haven’t given up working for a change to the cremation law. But if that doesn’t happen in time, they’re preparing for an alternative:

"If I die before my husband, he will have to bring me out of the country for cremation," Susann Helms said. "I don’t want my kids to have to live through an exhumation after three years if I were to be buried here in Greece.”

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