In Greece most people don’t stay buried for long. Due to the limited amount of landing and overcrowding in existing cemeteries, bodies only stay buried for three years. During this “grave rental” phase the body is buried whom in the ground and a ceremony is performed by the Greek Orthodox church.
Once that time is up the living relations must return to the gravesite and with the help of cemetery workers, dig up the grave and move the bones into a small box to be kept at home or in a communal ossuary.
The idea of keeping the bones – not the ashes – in a box is much more similar to the burial procedures of Japan, another country with too little space for its dead.
A permanent burial spot can cost upwards of $200,000 USD ($175,000 Euros), and that’s not even including a tombstone, mausoleum, or other sculpture. Therefore, one can easily understand how everyone buried in the First Athens Cemetery, which grave plots the size of a studio in Athens, are probably all wealthy or famous folks.
Due to the celebrity factor, and the sheer splendor of the artworks in this cemetery, it has become more of a tourist attraction that other such places around the world. Though on a hot weekday in late summer, I was the only person besides the cemetery works and a funeral party, the cemetery has tons of reviews of tripadvisor and seems popular with tourists.
I imagine that the Greek tourists come to see the tombs of famous actors, politicians, and singers like Sophia Vembo, but the foreign tourists come for the sculpture. Artworks of the tombs spans the entire history of Greek art, which sculptures paying homage to ancient Greece, the byzantine era, art deco and art nouveau. Just about every kind of art that has existed in Greece in represented in this cemetery. I took great pleasure walking through centuries in this short mid-day stroll.
Perhaps the most famous of all sculptures in the Sleeping Woman, by Greek Sculpture Yannoulis Chalepas. Completed in 1877 to immortalize 18-year-old Sofia Afentaki who died of tuberculosis, the sculptor Chalepas was a mere decade older than his deceased subject. This work is startling for another reason, in that it was Chalepas’s last work before he succumbed to mental illness.
I had the great opportunity to witness a funeral process, which I have an audio recording of here.