“My father will be lifted up soon,” my husband, Georges, said to our dinner guests. I could see the puzzlement and consternation on their faces as his father had been dead over three years. Our guests were obviously wondering what exactly this meant and how to react.
I hurriedly intervened by saying, “Georges, in Canada, we leave corpses in the ground forever.” Now our guests were really confused.
Georges then explained the funeral rites in his native village of Skalados, on the island of Tinos, Greece.
Skalados is a small village with a population of under a hundred permanent residents. In the summer, the population can more than double as the families who have left the village to live elsewhere, mainly Athens, come back to enjoy their summer break on the island of Tinos.
Skalados is a Roman Catholic village and the cemetery is Catholic. When one of the villagers die, bells ring from the Catholic Church of Saint John to announce the death. The funeral service is held fairly quickly, usually within twenty-four hours, as is the custom in many hot countries. Embalming is not usual in Greece.
While the person is placed in a coffin, the person is not buried with the coffin. The deceased is wrapped in a shroud and carefully placed in vault that has a dirt bottom, cement sides and a marble covering. There are eight places or vaults in Skalados. This means that, at some point, the person must be exhumed to make way for others.
I remember my mother-in-law explaining that when her father had been ‘lifted up’ (σήκωσε), she was the one who lovingly washed his bones with wine and prepared them to be transferred to a small chapel that is part of the cemetery. The bones are placed in a vault, identified with the person’s name and often the birth and death dates, along with a picture.
Today, though, it is not necessarily a relative who will wash and prepare the bones. One can hire someone to do this.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is considered the prevailing religion of Greece, as 90% of the population belongs to this church. Roman Catholics represent less than 1%. 1 It is no surprise that the Catholics in Tinos hold memorial masses for their loved ones as the Eastern Orthodox Church requires. A memorial mass is held on the third, ninth and fortieth day after death, as well as three months and six months following the death, and on the first anniversary of the death and sometimes three years after the death.2
After the funeral and the memorial mass, coffee, liqueur, alcohol, and other refreshments are served. These refreshments are provided by the bereaving family and are quite elaborate. My mother-in-law explained that when she was young, relatives and friends came from far, often on donkeys, and would need a meal before the long journey home. This tradition still continues today.
Also, in the village of Skalados, the family gives a loaf of bread to each household. The family in each home will then say a prayer for the deceased’s soul during their evening meal.
The Greek Orthodox Church prohibits cremation, therefore it is not common for the Roman Catholics in Greece to have their loved ones cremated.3 For the moment, the closest crematorium is in Bulgaria, although the Greek government has approved plans for a crematorium in Athens, despite the opposition of the Greek Orthodox Church. There is overcrowding in the cemeteries and people are exhumed after three years to make room for others.4
It is the custom for bereaving women in the Orthodox Church to wear black for at least two years following the deaths of their loved ones. The Catholics of Tinos also follow this tradition.
- Wikipedia, Religion in Greece, accessed May 20, 2019
- Wikipedia, Memorial Service in the Eastern Orthodox Church, accessed May 19, 2019
- Everplans web site, Eastern Orthodox Funeral Traditions, accessed May 20, 2019
- The Guardian, March 12, 2019, Greece defies church with step towards first crematorium, accessed May 20, 2019