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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Exhumation (Εκταφή)

My uncle Periklis (cf Περικλής = Pericles) died yesterday at the age of 86. Longevity comes at a price - he managed to live long enough to see great-grandchildren, but he had also been bedridden for the last couple of years. At the wake, I was surprised to see that, even in his coffin, he still looked similar to the younger uncle I remembered. His face had not shrivelled or wrinkled; save the waxy white look of his skin, I saw the man I remembered in better times. Not even his wife Athina (cf Αθήναι = Athens) looked old and withered - she is from Sfakia, which may explain why she still looks strong and astute.

Periklis and Athina - they are such ancient names; they are the same names of my ancestors who laid the foundations of modern Greece. My uncle's name (and that of his wife's) continue to be heard - grandchildren have been named after them, in the same way that my ancient ancestors named their own children after their favourite Greek heroes.

A common wish of the Greek old or dying is to request to be buried in a specific place. Uncle Periklis specifically stated that he wanted to be buried in the family grave, where his parents and siblings were also interred, close to the village of his birth. The last person to be buried in the family grave was his brother - my late father. This means that the grave must be opened up with the permission of the next of kin of the last occupant, whose bones must be gathered together to be placed in a corner of the grave, before the next coffin enters.

This centuries-old tradition is carried out by the next of kin of the last occupant of the grave, which in this case, is me. A priest is present when the concrete slab (made of three different pieces, concreted together) below the marble covering of the shallow grave is lifted, revealing the bones of the former occupant. The priest then chants a blessing, and the next of kin (or an assistant while they are present) gathers the bones together, washing them in wine, before placing them in a pillowcase (or cardboard box) and moving them to the side.

The washing of the bones in wine is also my last connection with the family grave. Responsiility of its upkeep will now fall on the next of kin of the new occupant: they will come at regular intervals to clean its exterior and light the kandili (oil-burning lamp) on the headrest, occasionally adorning it with garlands of flowers.

It is possible that Uncle Periklis will be the last person to be interred here, even though it's usually the case that the spouse of a male is also buried in the same grave, so that the couple remain together in life and in death. However, his wife has specifically stated that she would like to be buried somewhere else. As previously mentioned, she is from Sfakia, so she may be forgiven. But no one can say that she hasn't given him a good send-off - Athina is a professional dirge singer. Death gives her life. No relative's or fellow villager's funeral has escaped her lamentations (she also did a good job at my father's funeral).

The tradition of washing the bones of the dead in wine has an overwhelming nature; some people are not able to perform it because of the feelings that it arouses. But those who do manage to perform it also get a sense of satisfaction from the knowledge that they have done their duty, by taking part in an ancient ritual that links their own life with the death of their predecessors. By being able to have this done while I am present, I am connected to my ancient past, preserving  a rite of passage in almost the same way that it was performed since antiquity, thereby extending my roots into the earth, just like the olive tree that defies death even when it is uprooted. 

For an explanation of the photos, click on each photo in this set.

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