A Grave Issue

2 minute read

Athens city officials have a problem they can’t bury. A dearth of open spaces in the city means that existing cemeteries are filling up, forcing bereaved relatives to delay funerals for weeks. “All three municipal cemeteries are clogged up,” says Athens’ Deputy Mayor Katerina Katrivanou.

According to a private study, 80% of the greater Athens region’s 29 cemeteries cannot take any more burials. The problem is partly a result of a macabre Greek tradition. Burial plots are rented for three years, after which the grave is dug up to check that the body has fully decomposed. If it has, the plot can be released for a fresh burial; if not, the lease is extended for another year. After that, the remains are reinterred in shallower or mass graves to open space for other burials. Bodies are taking longer to break down, a result, says Katrivanou, of “the food and medicine that the average person now consumes, plus the dampness and poor quality of the soil in certain cemeteries.”

The problem has many Greeks considering cremation, which is illegal in Greece, the only European country to ban the practice. The powerful Orthodox Church’s opposition — it argues that cremation is an insult to the deceased — felled two recent attempts to legalize the practice. The current government, which came to power with the support of the Church last March, is unlikely to take on the prelates. But cremation advocates are gearing up for a fight. “Debate and discussion with the Church must begin over cremation,” says Kyriakos Mitsotakis, one of 10 lawmakers lobbying for a new bill to allow the custom. If not, warns Antonis Alakiotis, president of the Committee for the Progress of Cremation in Greece, “then we will proceed with our plans to set up a crematorium [in eastern Athens] and deal with the legalities later.”

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