When beginning our project we thought that, once a person’s burial in the First Cemetery was confirmed and we looked hard enough, we would find the grave. We had not considered that graves and their contents could disappear.
If a family dies out or the upkeep for a grave is not paid after a certain period, or a rental period has expired, the space reverts to the municipality and is then re-allotted.
The bones from these graves are most often placed in a box and then may be moved to a small ‘locker’,
to the large ossuary in the Plaza,
or be re-interred in smaller plots.
By law, disinterment requires the presence of a family member.
There is a less attractive solution for bones if not claimed; they are then buried in a common grave. This has occurred frequently in the last years because of the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. (1)
Even in permanent family tombs, when space is required, bones might be disinterred and arranged in smaller containers and placed in compartments in the same grave precinct.
A stroll almost anywhere in the cemetery will reveal debris from abandoned or forfeited graves:
Some are in the process of renovation:
This explains why a recent burial may very well be found in the oldest part of the cemetery and why a regular visitor notices so much activity going on in the cemetery that is not always related to funerals.
Bones are Not All Equal in the Sight of the Municipality
There is a mechanism in place that, if a committee considers a person’s or a family’s contribution to the state to be significant enough, they may agree to a grave remaining in spite of the rules. This has worked pretty well, - well enough for Dimitrios Vikelas’ comment that the cemetery was a modern Greek pantheon to be true - but mistakes happen and some graves, like those of the architect Stamatis Kleanthes and Ernst Ziller are no longer there. (2)
The Graveyard Shift
There is ample evidence that city fathers, over the years, have taken measures to add to the “pantheon”, overcoming the inconvenient fact that many Greek heroes and intellectuals died elsewhere.
Many have been brought back and re-interred – some at public expense, some privately.
IoannisVarvakis, one of Greece’s earliest benefactors died in 1825 in Zakynthos, but now rests in the Number Two spot in the Plaza.
Plaza, Number 2
Adamandias Koraiswas buried in Paris in 1833. His bones were brought here in 1877 and placed beneath the impressive monument that Athenian intellectuals of the day believed he deserved.
Section 2, Number 110
And then there is George Averoff, whose impressive mausoleum was commissioned by the city in order to receive the great nineteenth century benefactor’s remains from Alexandria in Egypt where he had died and, in fact, lived all of his life.
Mistakes Have Been Corrected…
OdysseasAndroutsos, was considered a traitor in 1825 when he died ‘trying to escape’ a Greek prison on the acropolis and he was buried unceremoniously somewhere on the north side of the acropolis near the Church of the Metamorphosis. When the government changed its mind in 1865, a funeral was held in the Athens cathedral church and attended by politicians and his wife who was still living. His bones were brought in procession and laid to rest in a small grave just inside the original gates of the cemetery.
Section 1, Number 160
And History Nudged …
The Communist Party of Greece brought back the bones of Chyssa Hadzivassiliou, a party member who had participated in the Varkisa agreement of 1945 but who had died in Bulgaria, exiled from Greece and her own party in 1950. They reburied her in a tiny grave directly behind Agios Lazarus church.
Section 2, near Number 444
The same treatment was given to the remains of Nikolaos Zachariadis, the famous Communist General Secretary and resistance fighter who died in Siberia under mysterious circumstances in 1973. The KKE brought him to the First in 1991, perhaps feeling that his presence could act as a counterbalance to people like Ioannis Metaxas, Nikolaos Plastiras, and Napoleon Zervas who were already there.
New Section Δ 3 (East of section 8)
Dem Bones Gonna Walk Around
Bones can leave too. As regions in Greece have developed their own sense of local history, some areas have demanded their heroes back. (3)
The bones of Theodoros Kolokotronis, Greece’s greatest hero of the War of Independence were transferred in 1930 with great pomp and ceremony from his grave in Athens to Tripoli in Arcadia.
His bones with a rider dressed as him parading past his equestrian statue on Stadiou Street! (4)
The veneration of bones goes back to early Christian times and the founding of Constantinople by Constantine the Great. When he founded his new Rome on the Bosphorus, the transfer (called ‘translation’) and veneration of Saints’ bones had political as well as religious overtones. He was bringing the saints ‘home’ to be venerated at the seat of his power and their presence enhanced the city, the Church, and his own rule! (5)
Cenotaph Vs Grave
There are a number of cenotaphs in the cemetery, for some members of the Filiki Etairia, for example and, of course, the grave of Kolokotronis is now a cenotaph – something we did not know when we wrote our text about him.
Does the presence or non-presence of bones make a difference? One day we were discussing the transfer of Kolokotronis’ bones to Tripoli. Filia commented that his empty grave was not a problem for her. I, the lapsed Protestant, agreed.
But, I have to confess: somehow it isn’t quite the same these days when I pass by Kolokotronis’ empty grave…
(1) We are not sure of the fate of the boxes we spotted in a shed behind the Ag. Theodoroi Church.
(2) We have noticed that the attrition rate for architects is especially high. But that may be because we have lately been looking for their graves.
(3) I have read, but cannot yet confirm, that the bones of Odysseas Androutsos were transferred yet again to the area of his birth in Previsa on the west coast of Greece.
(5) In Byzantine (and Roman Catholic) practice, there has been no prohibition of a saintly bodies being dismantled and their veneration shared in many locales. The same holds true of some of Greece’s civic saints although to a lesser degree. Constantinos Kanaris, for example, is buried in the First, to the west of Agios Lazarus Church, but his heart is encased in marble and on display in the national History Museum on Stadiou Street.
Note on “Dem Bones”. This famous spiritual seemed like a good frame of reference for the blog entry, especially because of the choruses: “Dem bones gonna rise again” and “Dem bone gonna walk around”. Certainly no disrespect is intended but, that was the song repeated in my mind as I considered ‘the bones’ and wrote!