The burial and cremation traditions in Greece are based primarily on the Greek Orthodox religious beliefs. In this culture, it is believed that the body is a “temple of the spirit” and must be buried as a whole in order to make resurrection possible.
Based on this “temple of the spirit” belief, cremation was illegal in Greece until recently. The State Council passed a ruling allowing cremation in 2006, and then further extended cremation in 2008. Since becoming legal, no crematoriums have been built in Greece. However, there are plans to begin construction of a state-of-the-art facility, with the anticipation of the first crematorium in Greece opening later this year.
Even though cremation is now legal, burial remains the standard method of handling the deceased in Greece. There is an interesting twist to this though. Due to a shortage of land, a family plot with enough space for two graves, can cost up to $200,000. If a family does not wish to purchase a plot, the only other burial option is to rent a grave. Renters pay for a three or five year grave depending on the area of Greece the deceased is being buried. After that period, it is mandatory that the body be exhumed to allow space for a more recently departed being. By law, family members are required to attend the exhumation. The remains are then placed in an ossuary (a place made to serve as the final resting place) with the remains of other deceased members of the family. In some traditions, the bones are first washed with wine before being placed in the ossuary. In the event that family members do not attend the exhumation, the bones are placed in a mass grave where they are dissolved with chemicals.
The burial traditions in Greece may be very distressing to some people from other cultures. However, it still remains the most common practice in Greece, and has been for the past 1500 years. The widely accepted belief that the body is a temple of God reaffirms for many that burying it intact after death is the ideal way to prepare for the resurrection.
This is the second in a series of blog posts on unique burial and cremation customs throughout the world. To read the first entry on customs of Tibet, visit http://phaneuf.net/blog/unique-burial-series-tibet-sky-burials. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging about the traditions of many countries and detailing their burial and cremation customs. Although at first glance, some of the traditions sound a bit harsh and very different from the customs of the U.S., they typically follow the belief system of that culture and are done with good reason and intentions.