Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece

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Recently we have been talking a lot about taxes: tax increases, tax fairness, tax evasion. Today for a change we have some good news about the other inevitability: death, or rather, your options after death in Greece.

At present, your after-death options in Greece are very limited. Basically, it’s burial or burial. The majority of Greeks are Orthodox Christians (as many as 98% though there are no official government statistics), and Orthodox Christianity is the country’s constitutionally guaranteed “prevailing” religion, meaning that its clergy are paid as civil servants, its institutions pay little tax relative to size of their estates (though the Church denies that it has preferential status), and Orthodox religious education is compulsory through primary and secondary school. By extension, the Church of Greece has de facto cornered the market in funerary ritual and disposal of the dead. What this means in practical terms is that the standard route out of this world is an Orthodox funeral and burial, followed by interment in a church cemetery, usually in a rented plot (perpetual plots do exist but they cost more than most houses). The standard rental period is three years, after which the remains are disinterred with considerably less ceremony than they were buried, and moved to a more compact stackable ossuary. If you are a Muslim, you can be buried in a limited number of dedicated cemeteries in northern Greece. If you belong to another religion, or are non-religious, or a slightly less dogmatic Orthodox Christian (for example, if you respect the Deity but distrust His earthly middlemen as many Greeks traditionally do), you’re on your own.

Greece is perhaps the only country in Europe that doesn’t offer the option of cremation of the dead, but over the last few years it has been edging slowly closer to making it a reality. To this day, there is no licensed crematorium in Greek territory even though campaigning started in 1987 and cremation was made legal in 2006 for those whose religion permits it. The Orthodox Church’s position, reiterated in a recent encyclical, is that since cremation is not part of its tradition, it does not sanction it; therefore priests are not allowed to perform a funeral service or a memorial for someone who is about to be cremated, though at the discretion of the local bishop a simple blessing might be arranged.

However it now seems that the final hurdle is being lifted that will allow the first crematoria to be licensed in Greece. Progress has been slow. In 2010, legislation was enacted setting out the planning conditions for operating a crematorium; however one of the conditions was that should be attached to a cemetery, which of course put it on church turf, both literally and metaphorically. In 2014, the condition linking crematoria to cemeteries was lifted, but restrictions remain which limit their operation to municipal bodies only. The mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, united by their progressive views but also facing the shared challenge of land scarcity in the most densely populated parts of the country, have been very outspoken in confronting the Church’s objections to establishing crematoria in their constituencies, and have been lobbying for gaps to be filled in the legislation. An amendment signed last week by the Environment Minister is now said to complete the licensing regime.

Meanwhile, this being Greece, we have found ways around the system, thanks to the availability of facilities in the neighbouring countries of the former Communist block, where state atheism ensured their development. Here’s how it works. Most funeral parlours, euphemistically known as “Ceremony Offices” (Γραφεία Τελετών) in Greek (I challenge you to find any that look like they do wedding planning, although some do have a flair for self-promotion) offer a cremation service. The closest and most popular destination is Bulgaria, where the office will arrange to transport the body, take care of the paperwork repatriate the ashes for prices starting around €1,900 (our local office recently quoted €2,500 for a dignified service: “we take them in a proper hearse, some of our competitors will just load them into a van”). It all has he makings of a great Balkan road movie (Valkanizater meets Little Miss Sunshine meets Due Date, perhaps?). Our own family itinerary specifies an additional orienteering challenge to disperse the ashes (Code name: Five Rivers).

If you want hedge your bets with your Orthodox Maker, the funeral organiser will also offer advice on how to handle the clerics so as to get a funeral. They line they favour is that “the deceased wished to be buried in his/her horió (χωριό, ancestral village)”; this ensures that after a “proper” funeral, the body is released, no questions asked. The moral acrobatics of lying to a priest in order to secure a Christian funeral does not appear to be a strong deterrent, and is in keeping with the general casualness of the relationship that most modern Greeks have with a religion that appears on the face of it so dominant and all-pervasive (Catholic friends both marvel at the pomposity of the ritual which is always performed in an archaic language by men who always wear frocks, and envy our relative freedom from guilt and the dread of eternal damnation). According to a recent report, the extra cost of a cremation has done nothing to dampen its popularity, even during the crisis. The owner of one funeral parlour was quoted saying that people are choosing to forgo the cost of a funeral service instead.

The economics of the final journey aside, there is growing impatience among ordinary Greeks with the institution of the Church. The financial crisis has been focusing attention on the Church’s own financial status, and particularly the lack of transparency around its relationship to the state and its involvement in major political scandals. A recent survey showed that 53% of Greeks favour the separation of Church and state, even though 82% do not believe that the Church would survive the separation financially (implying that they in fact believe it to be dependent on public finances). This, despite the prominent role the Church has taken during the crisis, in being seen to provide a social safety net of last resort through initiatives like soup kitchens in deprived areas.

The Church’s public charitable activities and financial clout may account for the fact that the Syriza/ANEL government has conceded on a number of fronts where it was expected to take a strong stance, including the continuation of compulsory religious education. Critics have also been quick to note the preferential treatment accorded to the Church under the continuing capital controls regime, and the recent ministerial decision to hire more priests ahead of badly needed schoolteachers. True, one partner in the coalition finds it hard to resist the opportunity to schmooze a bishop or kiss an icon; but even many political conservatives still harbour the hope that a left-wing government will do the dirty work of prising some areas of life out of the hands of the Church and into the modern age.

Ideally in this life as well.

Image: FIRE!! by Thomas’s Pics licensed under BY CC 2.0

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Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece

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