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Tuesday, November 15, 2005 

Six Feet Under

Athens Rent-A-Graves

When you move to another country, your main concern is how you'll be able to live and adapt to a new country. You don't spend much time thinking about how you're going to die. At least I didn't. Call it optimism or ignorance. Either way, the last thing on your mind is what your death and burial will be like. Even after living in Greece for 7 years, I still never gave it much thought. Until January of this year.

My husband's 91 year-old grandfather died in January. When he died, I felt better for just having known such a good, decent, kind, generous and principled man. After 91 years of surviving two world wars, civil unrest, famine and a military junta, his death did not come as a shock to us. His funeral came as a big shock to me. I was accustomed to a North American funeral involving a funeral home, eulogies to be prepared and written, which priest, how many days for the viewing. When I asked my husband about how we were going to arrange his grandfather's funeral, he was surprised and said "what's to arrange? It'll be over and done with in a day."

And true to his words, a quicker and more indifferent funeral I had never experienced. The priest who officiated did not offer kind words of condolence and spiritual hope to the family. Instead, he read the same funereal words he probably had read at dozens of other funerals. There was no one who stood up to read sincere and poignant eulogies for the man who had affected so many lives. A man who had provided for not just his own immediate family but his extended family as well. Most of whom still live in the houses he bought them while he was alive while he died in a small but immaculate one bedroom apartment. 91 years of life on this planet and the best we could do for him was a few grains of sitari (wheat) thrown on his rent-a-grave while a religious stranger spoke emotionless words. It just didn't seem right.

He deserved better. His family deserved better.

In Greece, most funerals are like his. You die. Your family rents a grave for 3 years since there is no space left to bury our dead in Athens. It's so bad that the bodies don't even decompose because there's just not enough soil to do the work. On the 9th day after your death your closest friends and family pay one of the many priests walking around the cemetery to officiate for 5 minutes and you go back home waiting for the 40 day memorial service. Then they return again on the 1 year anniversary of your death to repeat the same banale process. After 3 years, you get exhumed and if you don't pay for a reburial elsewhere, your bones are thrown down a well. Cremation (and embalming) is illegal. The Greek Orthodox Church claims that cremation is sacrilege so it's forbidden but digging up the dead isn't considered desecration? The Church makes more money off burials than cremation. Priests, who are paid by the State, also get paid in cash (most likely never declared for taxation) for performing all these ceremonies when someone dies.

By comparison, when my grandfather died 11 years ago at the age of 92, his funeral service lasted almost two hours. The priest knew my grandfather personally and many members of his family by name. So many people came that the funeral home that they had to extend the viewing days so more people would have a chance to pay their respects to our family. People I had never met drove hours just to make sure someone in our family knew what my grandfather had done for them . I was so touched by the outpouring of emotion and love from them that I actually have good memories of my grandfather's funeral. I had hoped I would be able to remember Pappous Yianni's funeral in the same way. But I can't. I feel we didn't do his life justice. My husband now wishes we had taken more control over how it was arranged. We can't bring him back, but we at least could have been comforted by the thought that we gave him a funeral befitting such a wonderful man.

His funeral made me realize that the way you leave this life is just as important as how you entered it. Therefore, I've made my wishes known to those closest to me that I do not want strangers anywhere near my grave and if I could get buried in the middle of some field in a Hefty bag, that would suit me just fine. No money to be spent on useless rituals or fancy graves. I'd want donations made to as many reputable charities as possible. Most importantly, I would not want any memorial services where people feel obligated to show up. The most I would hope for is that every now and again, that they think of me while they're living their lives and not mourning over mine. I dislike miserable people around me while I'm alive, I certainly don't want misery surrounding me when I'm dead.

Beautiful post, SeaWitch. It is clear from your writing that his life and memory will live on through you and through most, if not all, the people that were fortunate enough to have been touched by his kindness and love. May he rest in peace.

Funerals are unimportant, though I do agree that the inhuman nature of Greek funerals is more than a bit much. That isn't the case for North American Greek funerals. Regardless, funerals are not what is remembered in the end for most. The person is, and it sounds Papou Yianni will be one that will be remembered.

You have my condolences too.

And I think you are lucky to have avoided what I consider a "Greek" funeral, which is anything but indifferent or inhuman. Maybe you could call your experience an Athens funeral, or just a funeral that could have been better.

I find that in North America, everything is "arranged" and overarranged until you forget what it is that you're doing, that it's all about a death, a commonplace that is never common or banal to those touched by it. In Crete anyway, the funerals are prolonged and raw. By the end of one, you really feel that you've gone through something, a transition, not unlike death itself.

Thanks Ethno for your comment. Your words are more useful to me than anything the priest ever said.

You are so very right...I will remember him instead of his funeral. Maybe with time, my guilt over not having helped to arrange a better testament to his life will subside even though I know it would have served to make me feel better, not him. He was too gracious and humble a man to be moved by pompous events.

Thanks Sissoula. You make a good point as well...the complexity ostentatiousness of North American funerals. Many people do spend so much time and money on a funeral that it often becomes just as meaningless. I don't believe in those vanity events either. No, a simple funeral with sincere words spoken and presided over by a priest who actually knew the deceased would have made a world of difference to me and my memory of his interment. I've never been to a Cretan funeral, but the way you describe it, I'm not sure Papou Yianni would have wanted so much misery and pain felt by his family and friends over his death. Just a dignified service and sincere words spoken about him would have pleased him more.

Or maybe a "raw" Cretan funeral would be good in the sense that you don't end up with pent-up emotions. You get it out of your system.

When my husband's papou died, it was much the same way. There was a poor old man among the mourners, the last living of their group of friends, who wailed and cried and was obviously very stricken with grief. While it was distracting, I felt bad when the priest admonished him so crossly.

Anyway, the funeral just felt like a "process". It was all over and done and swept up so quickly. Yet they mourned again in 40 days and again a year later. I think it is very difficult to overcome and come to terms with your grief if you are having so many memorials. It was especially difficult on yiayia.

I loathe funerals, I don't even want one. I'm not religious, I don't need to be consecrated. I want a big ol' party. I want people to laugh about silly things, and cry about sad things, and get it all out. Then I want them to move on.

I don't know yet what to do about the whole corpse issue. I have a will from America that says my body goes to medical science, for research, and I intend for it to be so. Then cremation. But my husband doesn't really agree with that, so it will be iffy. Hopefully it won't be an issue for some time.

As for Papou Yianni, well, I think you just did fine by him by memorializing him here, and in your heart. A memorializing funeral is just icing. I think Greeks have a different kind of closure than we are used to. Everyone who loved him will remember him no matter what, in little ways, in big ways. He will rest in peace, and hopefully your heart will find some peace too.

Ok, please don't make what I post here personal, because it isn't.

Having said that, I think our good Seawitch has fallen victim to a difference in culture and custom.

I used to watch american funerals (granted, on TV) and gape at the insensitivity and pre-arranged, kitsch mourning. For all the televised hyperbole it still seemed hollow to me - and still does.

A funeral is not the day you put the person in the ground. There is the wake (before you bury the dead, not after, I find that very strange), which is.. just that. A whole night spent with the dead, relatives, friends, mourning, remembering. Then, the next day comes the consecration by the church.

Yes, they are words printed on a book. That does not make them any less powerful or true. The priest may or may not know the dead. Again, it doesn't matter. I suppose that fact sounds just as strange to non greeks as the eulogies and embalming and prolonged funerals (in a funeral home no less) to greeks.

As I said, it's a cultural thing and - respectfully - one hard to understand. I have been guilty in the past of judging the "american way", but I know better now. It's just different custom.

P.S.: I don't necessarily disagree, that burial is big business (although not as big as in the US I think), that there are bad priests, tax-free church proceeds etc. And these things should be corrected.

Thanks for even worrying that I might take your post personally. LOL

Growing up in Canada, I've experienced many funerals in many different religions...a wake is a bit weird but I could see me having one....so I don't think it's a cultural thing in my own case.

I'm not even saying a North American funeral is better than all others. I'm just saying that I wanted to personalise Papou Yianni's more. It's just 'me'. Even if I attending a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist funeral...I'd still want to express my feelings about the person. I don't know any other way to put it.

All I know is that I felt hollow afterwards and I still do today. I know my words, my feelings, my sadness won't bring him back but I just think that his funeral should be unique to him...not to a religious custom.

my condolences on your papou.

I do agree with some of the sentiments of previous posters though that the funerals in Greece seem to me to be better than in North America.

You mention cremation is illegal in Greece, well you suould know that a huge number of extremely expenisive and uneeded services are forced on bereaved here in theUS. the lobby of the funeral business is very powerful and only in the past few years has their grip gotten challenged.

What counts is that bereaved families in Greece are not robbed at their weakest moment. the things you feel are missing are FAMILY responsilities. Teh funeral dinner is done bythe family as is the 40 days. that is the time to speak and remember the dead.

Dearest Sister Seawitch...

I REFUSE to bury you in a hefty bag. I also REFUSE to allow you to be buried in a rent-a-grave. Nosiree...you're coming home to Canada where you can have an entire field with trees and pretty flowers.

As for myself...I want a Las Vegas style production. I definitely do not want to be cremated...or to be reduced to a name plate in the ground.

Nope. Not for me.

I want/deserve a big fancy headstone. The tackier the better. I would hope that my gravesite would be the place in the cemetery where kids say "Wow Mom. What IS that?" And they could come over and visit me in all my gaudy glory.

The day of your death is GREATER than the day of your birth. So I expect a party of global proportions. The more the merrier.

(Not to worry though Sissy...I have life insurance to cover my final wishes.)

I want to be noticed and remembered when I die. And I don't want my presence on this earth erased within a generation. I suffered and lived too much and too long to be remembered only by the people of my generation.

I am adamant about this.

Make it happen Twinster and I shall not haunt you.


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