World Incidents

Greece defies church with step towards first crematorium

Cemeteries are overcrowded and Greeks’ nearest option for cremation is Bulgaria

Greece has moved a step closer to opening its first crematorium, passing a decree that paves the way for a facility to be built in Athens despite persistent criticism from the Orthodox church.

The prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, described the measure as “one of the most important and necessary reforms”, and the city’s mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, said it was a “landmark step”.

“It is a very important development … which upholds the state’s obligation towards citizens’ fundamental rights,” said Kaminis, who has been pushing for the legislation since 2014. He said the town hall had faced countless difficulties correcting “weaknesses in the legal framework” to arrive at this point.

For decades Greeks seeking cremation for loved ones have had to go abroad. Neighbouring Bulgaria is the nearest country where cremation is allowed.

Though widely seen as long overdue in a nation where a lack of cemetery space inflicts the indignity of exhumation on almost every family, cremation has faced fierce opposition from the church.

Senior Orthodox clerics argue that funeral rites other than burial defy gospel teachings and can never be condoned. Ecclesiastical condemnation effectively quashed legislation in 2006 that approved cremation and would have brought Greece in line with other EU member states.

Kaminis is far from being alone among city mayors who have pressed for crematoria to be constructed. The mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, has spoken openly of his own bitter experience being forced to transport his late wife’s body across the border to Bulgaria for cremation.

Although facilities have been consented to in Thessaloniki and Greece’s western port town of Patras, progress has been slow.

The overcrowding in Greek cemeteries, reflecting the country’s growing urban population since the 1950s, has made the need for crematoria ever more pressing. With graveyard space at a premium, bodies are frequently exhumed after three years so that plots can be freed up for others. Bones are then transferred to ossuaries in cemeteries, but reports are legion of bodies not having fully decomposed.

Tsipras said the need for a crematorium in the capital was “self-evident”. But with the Orthodox church’s ruling body, the Holy Synod, almost certainly bracing for battle, details were scant on when construction would begin.

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