AFTER YEARS of campaigning and lobbying, Antonis Alakiotis (photo) may soon get what he and so many others have long demanded: a place to dispose of their remains as they see fit.
“I expect Greece’s first crematorium, to be located in the Athens municipality of Zografou, to be finished in late 2011,” says Alakiotis, president of the Committee for the Right of Cremation in Greece.
The highly anticipated facility’s opening will signal the end of a challenging campaign that began in 1996, when close friend and artist Pavlos Moschidis asked him to administer his last wish – to be cremated.
Admitting that he knew little about cremation – or that it was then illegal in Greece – Alakiotis did not at the time realise what this seemingly simple request would eventually entail.
“When I learned from Pavlos why there were no cremations in Greece,” Alakiotis, a school-stationery wholesaler, recalls, “I promised him that there would be one by the time he died.”
It did not turn out that way.
Not so easy
The Orthodox Church opposes cremation on theological grounds, seeing the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. It considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us.
Alakiotis on two occasions, in 1998 and again in 2004, succeeded in winning cross-party support for a bill to legalise cremation. On each occasion, however, the relevant Pasok minister refused to support it, fearing a backlash from the church.
This meant that when Moschidis died in 2004, his body had to be transported to Sofia, Bulgaria, to carry out his final wish.
Many families have been forced to take a similarly inconvenient and expensive route, says Alakiotis, who estimates that the remains of about 1,000 Greeks are cremated each year: between 800 and 900 of them in Bulgaria, the rest in Germany.
In 2006, the church finally agreed to support a bill allowing for cremation, which parliament this time passed into law, but only on the grounds that the law specified that it applied to non-Orthodox Greeks and foreigners.
“This was the technical wording necessary for the church to support the bill,” says Alakiotis, who points out that the law does not make it illegal for Orthodox followers to opt for the procedure if they so wish, as religion in Greece is a personal issue.
In any event, municipal crematoria, when established, will not ask for the religion of the deceased. And once Greece’s first crematorium opens in Zografou, grieving families will be spared the trouble and expense of taking their loved one’s body abroad.
“The municipality has already asked an architect to design the building and the plans will be finalised shortly,” says Alakiotis, whose committee has participated in the planning process.
Open in late 2011?
If all goes according to plan, an international tender is expected to be issued in February for the construction of a state-of-the-art facility, which Alakiotis says should take no more than seven months to complete.
While the church maintains its theological opposition to cremation, meaning priests will not perform a funeral service if they know that the deceased is to be cremated, it has watered down its stance, Alakiotis notes.
At a recent meeting of its Holy Synod, the majority of the hierarchy agreed that the church should concern itself primarily with performing the funeral service, and less with what happens to the remains.
In other words, they would prefer not to know if a cremation was being planned and, for this reason, the practice - where people planning to cremate their loved ones tell the priest that the remains will be buried “back in the village” - will continue, Alakiotis says.
Under the 2006 law, cremation may only occur 60 or more hours after the time of death. This, Alakiotis says, comfortably accommodates Greek funeral customs, which stipulate that burials should take place 12 to 24 hours after death.
Just the one
Although other municipalities in the Attica basin have expressed an interest in building crematoria, the planned facility at Zografou is likely to be the only one for the foreseeable future.
Alakiotis says that for various legal and planning reasons, none of the three Athens municipal cemeteries can accommodate a crematorium. Financial difficulties at Schisto cemetery in western Attica, which serves seven municipalities, also rules that out as a location.
The recent comments by Thessaloniki mayor-elect Yiannis Boutaris indicating that he is in contact with a German company which would build and run a facility in the northern Greek city also came as a surprise to Alakiotis. He points out that the Greek legislation expressly states that crematoria must be publicly run.
The pro-cremation campaigner believes that there is huge demand in Greek society for cremation, which he expects will cost the same as it does in Spain, Italy and France - about 1,500 euros.
A conventional burial in Greece can cost 5,000 euros, he adds, with families in most areas obliged to exhume their loved ones after three years (see story below).
And will Alakiotis avail of the service when his time comes?
“I want to be cremated, too,” he says unhesitatingly. “I don’t want my relatives to go through the traumatic experience of exhumation, as I did at my father’s graveside when I was 14 - my ashes will be scattered at sea.”
A problem of space
NOT ONLY overcrowded for the living, Greece’s cities are also short of space for the dead.
The acute shortage of burial space and the unavailability of cremation mean that most corpses are exhumed after three years to make way for new bodies.
Antonis Alakiotis, a pro-cremation advocate, describes exhumations as a “macabre” and “inhuman” process which under the law must be attended by family members.
In cases where the corpse has not decomposed fully, municipal workers remove it for reburial in a designated space elsewhere in the cemetery for six to 12 months, when it is exhumed again.
Where the body has decomposed, the workers remove the remains and take them for cleaning.
As one witness to the gruesome spectacle told the Los Angeles Times back in 1999, a cemetery worker wearing a surgical mask dug up a grave and, finding the body not fully decomposed, stood on it and pried it from its coffin.
In general, exhumed bones are placed in a metal box and stored along with thousands of others in a charnel house, located within the cemetery. When the family stops paying the annual rental for storage - which can range from 30 to 50 euros a year - the municipality disposes of the bones in large pits, where the bones are dissolved with chemicals.