The approval of the law allowing cremation in Greece paves the way for the first incineration facilities to be built within two years
THEY may need to hold their breath for another couple of years before the first facilities are built, but many wanting to be cremated upon death will at last be able to have their final wish carried out in this country after the Council of State approved a bill allowing cremation for those whose religion permits it.
After a long campaign by community groups (mostly Muslim, Buddhist and Protestant) and humanitarian activists, the legislation allowing cremation in Greece was passed in March 2006. As a presidential decree, though, it required the approval of the country's highest administrative court to become law.
That approval came on September 25 of this year. However, as explained by Antonis Alakiotis, the president of the Committee for the Right for Cremation in Greece (CRCG), a common ministerial decision now needs to be drafted by the interior, health and environment ministries before the first incineration facilities can be built - something that he expects will take up to a year-and-a-half.
For all that, though, Alakiotis treats the Council of State's recent decision as a significant step forward in the decade-long fight.
"Most importantly, they accepted it," he told this newspaper. "Of course, we wish that it had all happened more quickly, but we have to remember where we live."
He added that this does not change the Greek Church's position of forbidding cremation for its followers.
According to the law (3448/2006), families will be able to obtain a municipal permit to cremate their dead 60 hours after the death of their relative, as long as their religion allows it.
Unless written instructions requesting cremation have been left, the relatives (up to the fourth degree) can apply for the permit. In instances where there is a difference of opinion between relatives, a local magistrate will be asked to decide.
In addition to this, the Council of State requested that the common ministerial decision make provision for others to intervene when relatives seek a traditional burial despite there being proof that the deceased had requested cremation.
It also said that it should be illegal for the urn containing the ashes to be traded, avoiding the possibility of famous people's ashes being sold.
According to Alakiotis, the ministerial decision will now specify where and how such facilities will be built. Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis has already identified the city's First Cemetery as the likely location of the country's crematorium.
Commenting on the approval of the presidential decree, Thanasis Kafezas, of the municipality's Cemeteries Department, said: "We find ourselves one step away from the establishment of cremation facilities. In around one-and-a-half years, after the environment and public works ministry has determined the last laws, the City of Athens will have its first crematorium."
Vote for rites
Cremation is becoming increasingly accepted within this country, with up to 500 Greek Orthodox Christians opting for the practice despite the psychological trauma and costs associated with travelling abroad, mostly to Bulgaria and Germany.
Famously, Maria Callas was cremated in Paris and had her ashes scattered in the Aegean and, last year, renowned winemaker Yiannis Boutaris carried out his wife Athina's last wish to be cremated - an experience which, he said, left him feeling that the Church had treated his wife as if she had committed suicide.
After taking his wife's body to Bulgaria for the cremation, Boutaris struggled to find a Greek priest to carry out Orthodox burial rites and a blessing in this country, eventually finding one in Nymphaio (a village in northern Greece) who would "take the risk".
The hope for many Greeks is that the existence of a crematorium will soften the Church's to now staunch position against the practice for its followers.
Cremation is common in all other predominantly Orthodox countries.
"I am positive," Alakiotis said. "The position of the late archbishop [of Athens and all Greece] Christodoulos and the current Archbishop Ieronymos is encouraging. It is, however, a matter for the Holy Synod [the Church's executive committee]."
Commenting on the recently approved law, Ieronymos said: "It is respected, as are all legal decisions."
"The Holy Synod knows that its churches abroad have for some time offered burial rites for those who opt for cremation," Alakiotis said. "Furthermore, it is becoming more and more common for families to stop payments for the boxes in which bones from exhumed bodies [as is traditional in this country after three years of burial] are kept. Instead, the bones are often put in a big hole and turned into ash in a chemical way. What is the difference between this and cremation?"Cremation, he added, is the only realistic way to overcome the problem of overcrowded cemeteries.
Thrasy Petropoulos, for Athens News.