Thursday, 26 June 2014

Disposing of Dead Bodies

Yesterday evening Kyriaki, a.k.a. ‘Sunday’, had a business appointment, so Anastasia and I volunteered to look after the shop. We didn’t sell any books, but Anastasia told me about her visit to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; favoured burial place for all connected with the Arts. (All who can afford it, I mean.) Later we looked at the many photographs she’d taken of the often extraordinary tombs, but she was keen to tell me of a ‘freaky’ (there is a Greek word of the same pronunciation, and even, by coincidence, much the same meaning) experience she had there: as she walked past the back wall of some building she felt a blast of hot air and noticed an unusual cooking smell. She turned out of course to have been walking behind the crematorium.

Many Greeks are horrified by the idea of cremation. It has only recently become legal, and is still opposed by the Greek Orthodox Church. This opposition seems odd given the church’s claimed ecological commitments, but then churches have God on their side so needn’t bother with reason.

Different cultures’ different funeral customs can seem strange, even horrific, to each other, so here, mainly for the benefit of non-Greeks, is how it’s gone about in this island:

Mourners — often in very large numbers, so that the island’s bus is commandeered to fetch them up from the harbour town — gather in and around the little cemetery just outside the hilltop old village. Eventually, and always long after the scheduled time —  Εδώ είναι η Ελλάδα, here is Greece — a pick-up truck arrives with the coffined deceased and the closest relatives riding in the open back. The coffin is carried into the little cemetery chapel ‘The Dormition of the Virgin Mary’ and the lid lifted off, if indeed it has yet been placed on top. (It is rarely if ever screwed down.) A little later the priest arrives and there is a short ceremony in the chapel; often there has been a longer one in the big church down in the harbour town of Patitiri.

The coffin, still open, is carried out of the chapel, into the cemetery itself, and lowered into a grave — usually one that has been used many times before, more of that in a moment — just dug by Yorgos the big Rebetika-music-loving gravedigger who lives in a little house right there in the graveyard. The priest recites the words of committal, interrupted by the often very loud and prolonged lamentations of the female relatives of the deceased, and he places a small quantity of earth inside the coffin. The lid is put on, and people now file past the open grave, each throwing handfuls — usually three — of earth onto the coffin.

As people come out of the cemetery a relative gives each a plastic cup of Greek brandy or, more and more often, Scotch whisky — there is orangeade for those who prefer — and other relatives circulate offering sticky cakes. After some hand-shaking and conversation everyone drifts off to a taverna to have coffee or a ‘proper’ drink and reminisce about the deceased.

Three years later there is a more discreet ceremony when the body is dug up again. Usually decomposition is complete by then, but a recent fashion for elaborate marble tombs, which stop the rain getting in — the old style, mostly now followed only by the occasional foreigner, was a simple wooden fence — sometimes means it isn’t, so then the earth is hastily shovelled back in and one waits another year or two.

If all is well the bones are lifted out and brushed clean — I have sometimes seen them arranged on an old iron bedstead in something like their correct disposition, to make sure they’ve got everything — and put in a box which is added to the hundreds stacked in the little ossuary behind the gravedigger’s house. It is surprising how small a box will do for a full human skeleton. There they stay until no-one can really remember the deceased, or the box finally crumbles away. What is left is thrown into a deep pit at the back of the ossuary.

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