Funerals / by Adrian Joyner

Funerals in Greece are very different from funerals in England. When someone dies here, little black edged flyers go up on walls and telegraph poles, giving the name of the person who has died and the time and place of the funeral. In our village it’s always the same little cemetery. I guess these little notices must go up very quickly since burial usually follows within a day or two of death.

Everyone gets buried. You need a special permit to be cremated, and, as I understand, the only crematorium is in Athens. The whole village turns out for the funeral and a big procession makes its way from the dead person’s house, following the coffin which is usually carried to the graveyard by family members and friends. I’ve never seen a hearse here, though I imagine such things must exist in the towns.

The interesting thing though, for non-orthodox Christians is that, once buried, you only stay in the ground for a couple of years. The body is then disinterred and the principle bones either go to the family or are lodged in an ossuary in the graveyard. In our village this is a little shed-like place with a tin roof, lined with dusty shelves stacked with ageing bags and boxes, all with labels. The general idea seems to be that in order to be resurrected on the last day, you are going to need your long bones and your skull. Hmmm.

The state of the disinterred body is of considerable interest to the community. Clean bones used to be thought of as a good omen, a sign of a life well lived, whereas a body not fully decomposed was considered to be mark of previously hidden sins. In these cases the body goes back into the ground for another spell. The issue can be complicated when the dead person has been taking long term pharmaceuticals, which apparently have a preservative effect.

In Mani, there used to be a tradition of funeral laments, mirologia, sung by women at the graveside, passionate improvised dirges accompanied by breast beating and the tearing of hair.

I was in a small town near Delphi some years ago, where a group of local boys had been killed in a car smash. A number of families had suffered a loss and the heart rending sound of wailing was everywhere. Later, members of the bereaved families sat on chairs in the square while the entire town filed past, some hundreds of people.

In a graveyard in Finikounda, we once encountered a group of women gathered around the grave of a lately buried member of the family, and they were giving out little plastic cups of sweeties, not sweeties exactly, but what seemed like sugared corn kernels. A traditional thing, they said, food for the dead on their journey, and for anyone else who happens to be passing.

We wandered off, chewing.