It was many years in the making, with fierce resistance from opponents including the Greek Orthodox Church, but a crematorium is now operating in Greece in the town of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens, giving people who want the return to ashes an option other than burial.
The private facility is owned by Antonis Alakiotis and gives people who prefer cremation the chance to have it done in Greece, instead of going to Bulgaria where the experience for their families has been surreal.
In a feature, Public Radio International (PRI) wrote about the difficulties Greeks have faced, illustrated by Avrilia Kosmaidou – a former worker in the funeral business – who said she wanted to fulfill the last wish of a friend, Theodora, and went to crematorium looking for an urn.
The crematorium opened in September, 2019 and she was glad it did so that she could honor her friend’s desire. “Theodora was my sister; I can’t call her just friend," Kosmaidou told PRI’s The World after her friend died from a respiratory illness while suffering from cancer.
Oddly, public crematoriums have been legal in Greece since 2006 but no government or municipality has dared take on the Church, which forbids cremation, although it was a common practice in ancient Greece.
Other reasons cited have included no suitable place to locate one, but cemeteries are filling fast as with a falling birth rate there are more coffins than cribs in Greece and more and more people are looking at cremation for reasons other than religious.
Kosmaidou said Greeks who wanted to be cremated were forced to go to Bulgaria, where she said facilities aren’t suitable and almost no one speaks English, providing records in Bulgarian.
“The crematorium [in] Bulgaria is very old, and the smoke that comes out is very heavy, even though they have renovated it,” she said. “They burn (the dead) with flowers, varnished coffins (or) without coffins — they are completely disorganized. It’s a mess.”
Alakiotis, the co-founder of the Greek Cremation Society and president of Crem Services, a private cremation facility and ash scattering service, had been fighting for a crematorium in Greece for more than 20 years.
“At the beginning, there was no law allowing for crematoriums to be built in Greece. It has been discussed many times in the past, also with the death of (singer) Maria Callas, but the Greek Orthodox Church was against it,” Alakiotis said. She was cremated in Paris.
“When, in 1996, I personally had to fulfill the last wish of a friend to be cremated, I was surprised to learn that Greece, a European country, member of the EU, hadn’t arranged yet a human right like this.”
In 2006, behind urging from Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni, the Greek Parliament first approved a law allowing public crematoriums and it was modified in 2010 but it took until 2017 before the law approved the building of private facilities that can’t be in urban spaces.
Another push came from actress and Member of Parliament Anna Vagena. When her husband, the Greek singer Loukianos Kilaidonis, died at 74 from heart failure, she had to take his remains to Bulgaria for cremation and was unsettled by how awful an experience it was there.
“About 600 to 700 families go each year to Sofia,” Alakiotis said. “Here, since Sept. 30, when we opened, we’ve done around 80 cremations per month. We believe we will reach 1,000 cremations the first year, which is 30% up from (the number performed in) Bulgaria.”
Vagena, a member of the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, returned from the cremation and managed approval of a reform allowing the first crematorium in Ritsona, near a secluded forest where there’s the option of having the ashes spread or put into an urn.
Speaking to the press at the facility on Oct. 10, GCS President Antonis Alakiotis hailed its operation as an “historic event.”
“Changing funerary customs is one of the hardest and slowest shifts that any society can make,” he said, adding, “Our country… is unfortunately the last in the European Union to acquire a crematorium.”
Cremations are not arranged directly with the facility but through funeral homes. “The cost at our end comes to 600 euros ($662.33,) but with that of the funeral home, I estimate it at between 1,500 and 2,500 euros,” Alakiotis said, about $1656-$2760.
In March 2016, Greece’s Holy Synod said it would try to stop plans for crematoriums that were approved by Parliament, saying it violates Orthodox dogma.
“The state must recognize that religious freedom applies to everyone and, therefore, legislation in favor of atheists or people that are indifferent to religion, cannot be imposed on the majority religious community of the Orthodox church,” the Holy Synod said to no avail.
A traditional burial costs about $558 more than cremation, all costs included and with cemeteries filling, many families have been required to exhume the bodies and put the bones in ossuaries, repeating their grief.
“With cremation, you get a more decent death, because it’s inhumane to put your loved one inside the mud and the leftovers of the previous diseased person; and then they make you take them [out] again after three years. A thousand times, (I prefer) cremation than (to) go through this stressful situation,” Kosmaidou said.