Greece May End `Barbaric' Grave Rental as Cremation Ban Lifted
March 16 (Bloomberg) -- Antonis Alakiotis was 14 when his father's body was dug up from an Athens graveyard.
``The brown jacket he was wearing was still there,'' Alakiotis, 55, said in a telephone interview from his home in Athens. ``The face of the person I remembered was bones. It was macabre, barbaric, an insult to the dignity of death.''
Most Greeks are forced to rent graves for just three years because a dearth of space pushed burial-plot prices to 150,000 euros ($179,000). The government on March 1 passed a law allowing cremation to ease the space shortage, overturning a ban that's existed since Christianity arrived 2,000 years ago.
The Greek Church says the ruling doesn't apply to Orthodox Christians, who make up 90 percent of the nation's 11 million people, because burning a body conflicts with teachings on the resurrection. Still, many welcome the law.
``This retrieval of bones is just too much,'' said Tony Savidis, 47, a taxi driver in central Athens. ``You've already gone through the trauma of losing someone, then going back to dig up the body and reliving everything is just too much.''
The change comes nearly 20 years after the Holy Synod, the Church of Greece's ruling body, ignored a request to allow cremation by the then Mayor of Athens Miltiades Evert, according to the Athens-based National Commission for Human Rights.
Evert appealed to the Synod after a 10-day heat wave in July 1987 killed as many as 1,000 people, resulting in bodies piling up outside cemeteries. Since then, human rights groups have campaigned for cremation, saying Greece was denying other religions their rituals as the country took in more immigrants.
For Orthodox Christians, the Church ``ordains in favor of burial and not for cremation,'' Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos said March 2 this year.
Greeks are among the European Union's most religious citizens. More than 80 percent of Greeks say they believe in God compared with an average of 16 percent in the 25-nation European Union, according to a June 2005 Eurobarometer poll.
The Vatican, which states a preference for burials, stopped opposing cremation for Roman Catholics in 1963.
``Burial is part of our tradition, of who we are as people,'' said Helen Hatziladas, a 29-year-old Athens office manager. ``When you go back after three years and the flesh is a little gone from your bones, it says something: you've been a good Christian.''
Many Greeks are keen to reduce the costs associated with dying. Cremation is almost half the price of a traditional burial and in countries such as the U.K, Sweden and Switzerland, cremations account for more than 50 percent of funerals.
Demand at the Athens First Cemetery can drive prices for a permanent burial plot to as high as 150,000 euros, according to Katerina Katrivanou, 50, the deputy mayor of Athens who's in charge of the Greek capital's three cemeteries. That's roughly the price of a two-bedroom apartment down the road. A three-year plot rents for between 550 and 1,800 euros.
``We have a huge problem when you consider that there are only about 20,000 plots for rental and there are about 5 million people,'' Katrivanou said in a telephone interview.
Overworked soil in most urban cemeteries means that bodies don't fully decompose in three years. Relatives are required by law to be present at the exhumation before the remains are stored indefinitely in an ossuary box.
Before this month's law, non-Orthodox Greeks could choose to have their bodies dispatched abroad. A cremation in Bulgaria, the nearest destination, can cost 6,000 euros, according to Anestis Daravigas, 62, who runs a funeral home in Thessaloniki.
Under the law, those baptized into the Orthodox faith must ``consciously choose to diverge'' from the Church if they are to be cremated. That may deny them and their families funeral rites should the Church continue to insist on burial.
After witnessing his father's exhumation, Alakiotis went on to set up the Committee for the Right of Cremation in Greece in 1997 to help others avoid the trauma. He expects the shift to cremation to be gradual.
Of 100,000 deaths a year, about 3 percent will opt for cremation in the first three years, he predicted. One cremation facility will be enough for Greece for the next decade, he said.
``More families will opt for cremation rather than having to endure this sight,'' says Alakiotis. ``We've been struggling all these years. This is a new thing for Greek society.''
To contact the reporter on this story:
Maria Petrakis in Athens at email@example.com
Last Updated: March 15, 2006 19:05 EST