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Why Greeks are exhuming their parents

Grave plots

Cemeteries in Greek cities are so overcrowded that bodies are often only kept in the ground for three years. Then families have to pay for exhumation - and for the bones to be kept in a building known as an ossuary. But many cannot afford to pay even for this limited degree of dignity in death.

Katerina Kitsiou stands weeping by her father's grave in Thessaloniki's main cemetery. She has come to watch as her father Christodoulos is exhumed.

He was buried seven years ago, but his children cannot pay for his grave any longer.

"We paid for an extra four years to keep him there but we cannot afford it any more," says Katerina.

It's clear that for her the occasion is deeply upsetting.

"It's your beloved. You imagine him like a person and then you see only the bones. It's like a second funeral."

Image caption Katerina Kitsiou and her brother Kostas at their father's grave

This is something most Greeks know they will have to face at some point in their lives - most feel obliged to attend the event out of respect to the dead.

Over the last 50 years, Greece's urban population has exploded. More than half the country's people are now concentrated in the two biggest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. Urban development has left cemeteries encircled, with no room to expand.

That's why graves are now usually rented on a three-year lease with an escalating price scale for any additional years. The prohibitive costs are meant to act as a deterrent so that the space can be reused.

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Media captionThe exhumation of Katerina Kitsiou's father

Petros Bakirtzis, one of the cemetery's gravediggers, currently averages 15 exhumations a week. Each is started off by a mechanical digger, then Bakirtzis jumps into the hole and finishes the job with his spade.

Sometimes no relatives come to watch. He talks as he exhumes another body.

"It is lucky this one has fully decomposed. I was a bit worried you might have to see something nasty," he says as he begins gathering up the human remains.

A long black sock with a shoe on the end is removed from the earth with the shin bone still inside and the suit jacket is shaken for the bones to fall out. The remains are piled up on a simple white sheet and the clothes tossed into a large green wheelie bin next to the mound of rubble and earth by the grave.


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At least a quarter of bodies exhumed after three years have not yet fully decomposed - a problem which sometimes arises, it's said, when the deceased person was treated with chemotherapy or other drugs which may help preserve the corpse.

Most other European countries have helped reduce the burden on cemeteries by introducing the option of cremation - more than 75% of people in the UK and Denmark opt for cremation rather than burial.

In 2006 a law was passed allowing for crematoria to be built in Greece but the powerful Orthodox Church is vigorously opposed, and nearly 10 years later the country still does not have one.

The church teaches that a body must be buried in order to be resurrected at the second coming. Archbishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, argues that cremation is the rendering of a human being into nothingness.

"The Orthodox Church cannot accept cremation. Are we going to deny the teachings of the gospel after 2,000 years?" he says.

He rejects the idea that bones left in the ground will eventually decompose, turning to dust that is no more ready for resurrection than the ash of a cremated body.

And he seems to be unaware that most Greeks buried these days are exhumed. "I've been repeatedly to the main cemetery and I have never seen an exhumation," he says.

It is possible, just, for Greek people to cremate their relatives - by transporting them to the nearest crematorium, in Bulgaria.

The Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, one of the country's biggest wine producers, has done it with his mother and wife.

"My mother told me not to let the worms eat her," he says with a small laugh.

"I keep some of my wife's ashes in a small box in my cupboard and when I open it to get dressed each morning I stroke them a little."

The Church won't carry out a funeral service if it knows the body will be cremated, so people often pretend a burial will take place later, somewhere else. In Boutaris's case, the issue was quietly avoided after he asked the priest not to make him lie.

Boutaris wants to open Greece's first crematorium next year, but he has yet to secure funding and his chances of success don't look good.

Usually after an exhumation the bones are washed and placed in a small metal box. The law prevents human remains being kept outside the confines of a cemetery so they are housed in an ossuary, a vast building resembling an archive with filing cabinets full of bones.

Relatives come and visit the bones, occasionally removing them from the box to pay their respects or to enable a priest to bless them.

But the ossuary incurs a rental charge and for Greeks already unbearably squeezed by years of economic crisis and austerity, that can cost too much, particularly if they have more than one deceased relative.

If the relatives don't show up for an exhumation or stop paying rent at the ossuary the bones are thrown into something called the "digestive pit", a vast underground mass grave. Here there is no ceremony, as the gravedigger tosses the remains on top of tens of thousands of others.

But even these pits are filling up. In the 3rd Cemetery in Athens the digestive pit is full and there is no room for a new one, so boxes full of bones are stacked up in sheds.

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Media captionRemains are dug up, cleaned and put in a "digestive pit"

For hard-pressed Greeks, the problems begin even before the body is buried. The Association of Funeral Directors of Athens estimates that around a third of the population struggles to pay for their loved ones' funerals.

"People used to consider it a matter of pride to put money aside so they could have a decent funeral," says the association's head, Nasos Kostopoulos.

"Now they spend those savings on helping out their unemployed children."

Four of Athens's main hospitals have reported bodies lying in the mortuary with the families unwilling to claim their loved ones for fear of incurring unmanageable funeral costs. One hospital said it was averaging one unclaimed body a week.

"It's incredibly painful for families who cannot pay for the funeral of their loved one especially because burial is considered something holy here in Greece," says Maria Tsikaloudaki, of the Attiko General Hospital.

"But we have reached a point in the crisis where families do not even try to hide their economic hardship any more."

The director of the Elpis Hospital, Theo Giannaros, says cemeteries are sometimes unwilling to accept paupers because they are obliged to provide free grave plots.

"A few years ago we had a body here for months because no cemetery would take him," he says.

"I had to threaten to take the body to their Mayor's office if he was not taken off our hands."

At Athens's 3rd Cemetery pauper burials have increased so dramatically since the crisis began that the area usually set aside for unmarked graves has filled up. Now weed-covered graves, distinguishable only by their shape, are dotted all over the cemetery grounds.

Despite this, one cemetery employee told the BBC that some of the biggest cemeteries in Greece still generate an income of up to 8m euros per year for the local government.

The ordeal of exhuming a dead child may be even worse than exhuming a parent.

One of Thessaloniki's most successful funeral directors, Nikos Pahoumis has attended thousands of exhumations but nothing can prepare him for the forthcoming exhumation of his own son.

When he died nearly three years ago from leukaemia, Pahoumis and his wife were considering cremation but a priest persuaded them to opt for burial instead. Pahoumis cannot even bring himself to visit the grave, however, and despairs of the idea that he will have to see his son's remains dug up.

"We buried him with his toys and other personal items which obviously won't have decomposed," he says.

"It's a very psychologically painful thing to have to experience."

Katerina Kitsiou recalls how she often visited her father's grave, propping a lit cigarette in the earth where she imagined his head might be so that she might have a smoke with him.

"I wanted him to rest eternally, this is the purpose of burying him," she says, looking into the hole where her father's grave used to be.

"People have to know this is a problem. It's unacceptable."

She draws some comfort from the idea that she can visit her father's bones in the ossuary but eventually he too, like the majority of people, will end up in the digestive pit.

Greeks have had to accept the pain and uncertainty that comes with a financial crisis. In many cases a sense of dignity in death is also being denied them.


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