ATHENS – Nearly 13 years after cremations were legalized in Greece, but stymied by opposition from the Church and critics, construction of the first seemed to be getting closer after Environment and Energy Minister Giorgos Stathakis signed a decision to allow it.
That means Greece will be able “to fulfill its commitment for upholding “citizens’ rudimentary rights,” Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, a former Ombudsman, hailing the decision even if there no announcements about when work would begin, or if.
Despite repeated similar declarations, no progress has been made on building a crematorium, in Athens, or in the second-and-third largest cities in the country, Thessaloniki in the north and Patra in the west.
The ministerial decision okays construction of a crematorium in a city-owned plot in the Athens area Elaionas, together with a park surrounding the facility, bringing the country in line with European legislation following years of delays prompted mainly by objections from the Church.
The announcement comes two years after the government said it was moving quickly to allow cremation, although the Church said it would not be allowed for those of the Greek Orthodox faith, the vast majority in the country.
Parliament first gave the approval for a crematorium in 2006 but it can be used only by those whose religion also allows it. The City of Athens called for people to offer land for rent or sale to host a crematorium in 2016 but it was slow to happen.
“On the part of the Athens municipality, and, as it seems, the government, there is the political will for the creation of a crematorium in the wider Athens area,” Deputy Mayor Nelli Papachela said then, but similar optimism has been repeatedly dashed.
Papachela said the project will boost economic development and create jobs and stop the flow of money going to other countries where people have to take bodies.
In 2011, a crematorium seemed imminent in Thessaloniki, the city’ second-biggest city, with officials also citing revenues from burning bodies as a key factor.
Hundreds of bodies have had to be transported abroad for cremation every year, with Bulgaria the closest offering that option. Other countries chosen by Greeks include the United Kingdom, France and Italy.
The cost of being cremated abroad had ranged from 2500-6000 euros ($2633-$6319) and officials in Thessaloniki said the city could have used that money.
Currently, only a municipality can operate a crematorium as plans to allow private crematoria have run into ferocious opposition from the Orthodox Church. Cities and towns also have a near monopoly on operating cemeteries.
Greece is one of the few western countries where private cremation is unlawful, leading Greeks who prefer that practice for their deceased loved ones to have the bodies transported to Bulgaria.
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.
Lawmakers at that time okayed a bill letting people choose their burial rites despite staunch opposition from the church and other critics opposed to burning of bodies, although it was practiced in ancient Greece.
“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.