The recent passing of the well-known Greek actor Minas Hatzisavvas stirred two major unresolved issues by the Greek State. Hatzisavvas was a private man who although never hid the fact that he was gay; for the last 25 years lived with his loved one and a fellow actor, Kostas Fakelakis. Upon his death his wish was not to be buried, as accustomed in Greece, but to be cremated. The first issue that Hatzisavvas’ death raised was the fact that his companion Mr.Fakelakis was not allowed to make funeral arrangements due to the fact that Greece has not yet allowed civil unions between individuals of the same sex. Fakelakis, during his very emotional speech at Hatzisavvas’ service said that “Minas never hid or was ashamed of being gay. The only thing he asked was to be able to live in dignity and die in dignity. Give us that chance at last”. It is noteworthy that the current SYRIZA government is in the process of establishing such a civil union law, despite the objections of its far-right coalition partner.
The second issue that Hatzisavvas’ death raised was the matter of cremation in Greece. So far, there are no facilities for cremation within the country, so those bodies of people whose final wish was to be cremated need to be shipped to Bulgaria, the closest place with cremation facilities, in order to be cremated there and return the urn to Greece to hold the civil service, as was done in Hatzisavvas’ case.

by Katerina Polyzou, MA*

The current situation regarding cremation in Greece
The vast majority of Greek citizens are baptized and become part of the Christian Greek Orthodox Church, a religion described as “dominant” in the Greek Constitution of 1975. Greek Church highly opposes cremation, refusing to hold a religious service for all those who choose to be cremated in Bulgaria. The reasons behind this opposition are not the point of this article, but rather the description of the harsh greek reality concerning the matter.
Under a highly controversial law, the Karamanlis administration in 2005 managed to make the process of cremation in Greece legal, making the first step towards the creation of cremation facilities. Although the Presidential Decree which actually set the parameters for such infrastructure was delayed for a while, it has been valid for years now. So why aren’t there facilities yet?
In November 2011 the Municipal Council of Markopoulo, a Municipality close to Athens airport, voted unanimously in favour of the creation of cremation facilities within the Municipality and under its jurisdiction, which would essentially mean that the Markopoulo Municipality would receive income by the function of these facilities. Considering the fact that it would be the first and only cremation centre in Greece, it is only logical to assume that the financial benefit for the Municipality would be substantial, considering that they would satisfy the demand of the whole country for such a service.
However, in March 2012 and only five months after the first vote 19 members of the Council voted against the creation of cremation facilities and only 7 stood by their initial approval. At the second and final meeting on the matter, civil society groups presented the Council with 2500 signatures against such facilities gathered in collaboration with the local church, the Metropolis of Mesogaia. In a heated discussion, members of the opposing side even argued that Markopoulo would end up smelling like Auschwitz, if cremation facilities were to be created. The Mayor himself said that he underestimated the influence of the church on the citizens, closing the discussion on the issue for good.
Today, the Mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris has expressed his firm wish to create the first cremation facilities close to the industrial zone of Sindos, which belongs to the Metropolitan area of Thessaloniki. The local Mayor Mr.Fotopoulos seems to present the same arguments with the opposing side of Markopoulo, suggesting that the air would be contaminated, to which Mayor Boutaris replied that home fireplaces create more pollution than a modern and by-the-standards cremation facility. It seems that Mr.Boutaris is determined to go through with the matter, as he already has announced a call in order to buy the site upon which the facility will be built. After all, Boutaris’ relation with the local clergymen was never smooth as he is a stern supporter of gay rights and supported the organization of a gay parade in Thessaloniki which has now become a big tourist attraction and celebration of equality in the city.

Describing the issue on a more personal note
Why is the issue of cremation so crucial to some people? Whether you are a believer or not, I firmly believe that each individual must have the right to choose their path in life, as well as in death. The option is what matters, and the fact that the Greek State up until 2005 considered cremation an illegal activity and has failed for over a decade to bend clerical opposition on the matter is something infuriating.
For all those who don’t know how a religious funeral service takes place for those who belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, I will present a brief description. Those who find the matter sinister and disturbing, be warned: these are harsh truths that us, the Greek citizens have to endure, and which make the construction of cremation facilities such a crucial necessity. After a funeral service, the burial takes place in municipal cemeteries. In big cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, cemeteries are “overpopulated”, which means that the sites are too small to accommodate the excessive demand. Essentially, this means that the family of the deceased does not buy the area of the tomb in the cemetery, but rather rents it for a period of few years, depending on the needs and overpopulation of the cemetery.
How can you rent a grave you might ask? Well, this is where it gets sinister. After let’s say, a period of five years, the family of the deceased is presented with a note that the remains of their beloved one must be removed from the grave and placed within mass graves at the cemetery. The site where the first tomb used to be will be replaced by a new one and so on and so forth. The whole process of the removal of the remains has to be witnessed by a member of the family, as part of the bureaucratic procedure.
You can imagine the trauma this can cause to families; consider that people loose children, spouses and not only people who have lived full and long lives, a thought that might (or might not) soften the blow. No matter the religious beliefs, the conservatism of certain parts of the society and the opposition by Church, no human must endure this. The only thing soothing to the loss of a beloved one is to have dignity in the process and, as a citizen, to be treated with respect. The current burial procedure lacks both, thus making cremation a crucial necessity for sensitive poor souls like me.

*Katerina Polyzou holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies. She has participated in the analysis of the stance of greek citizens on political and social issues for various academic researches, and is active in the pursuit of liberties within Greece.