Sunday, 10 December 2017

The living dead

Looking after the dead is an important aspect of every modern society. Greeks bury their dearly departed in such a way that we can imagine them as sleeping in the earth, as if they are still with us, only that they are now silent and enjoying a peaceful life. This is one reason cremation has been hard to imagine for modern Greeks until very recent times. Cremation was actually very common in ancient Greece, especially for warrirors, and in Athens where there was a lack of space. Cremations are being reconsidered in our times because more people these days have expressed their desire to have a non-Christian funeral, and there are also people who see it as environmentally more sound to be cremated. But until crematoriums are built in Greece - and this won't happen too soon, although they are on the cards apparently - we will still be buried in cemeteries similar to the one I visited recently in the village of Gerolakkos in the Keramia region of the Cretan highlands.


On the ocassion of the memorial service of a friend's mother, we visited the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where the cemetery of the village is also located. The splendour of the area is not visible from the main road - you have to climb a marble staircase to see it. The winter season's colours were on full display in this semi-alpine region with a view to the snow-capped mountains of the Lefka Ori: the yellow orange shades of the deciduous trees contrast starkly with the evergreen olives, whose trunks show the effects of snow. Olives don't like frost, and their branches break when they are covered in snow. But olive is a very hardy tree, and it does not die easily - at such altitudes, its trunk gets stockier, and it regains its strength by winter's end, continuing to flourish over spring and summer, while remaining shorter than olive trees growing on lower ground.


The church service was rather long, the church was small, and the congregation was huge - at least 250 people turned up. Since we did not all fit into the church, I stayed outside most of the time, and strolled through the cemetery, which is very typical in Greek terms. Many of the graves had some very moving epitaphs (which we call epigraphs in Greek - επιγραφές) inscribed on them, giving away clues about the earthly life as it was lived by the residents of the tombs. The words written by the loved ones of the dearly departed imply that life does not stop once you die: your actions in the world keep your memory alive well after death, and you will be remembered for them - whether for good or for bad. Life goes on, even after death.


What particularly endeared me to the epigraphs at Gerolakkos is that they were nearly all written in the style of the Cretan mantinada, a rhyming poem very popular in Crete, consisting of two 15-syllable parts, often written over four lines. Many of the epigraphs were also written in the Cretan dialect. A few of those epigraphs stood out for the message they wished to convey: the writers know that the people reading them will not be their dearly departed loved ones, but the general public, among whom there will be many people who knew the deceased (it's a village church, after all, and it will be visited by villagers with family and friends in common). Many of the messages are simple poems showing the great sorrow of the writers at the loss of their loved ones, but a few stand out for the story they tell of their dearly beloved.

A picture may tell us a thousand words, as is the case of the accompanying photograph to the epigraph - the traditional face of the Cretan man, with a black crochet sariki on his head and a 'katsouna' (wooden walking stick) just visible, reminds the Cretans of their roots from older times which are still relatively recent in our memories:
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"Father, wherever you walked, your name stayed/And it left a legacy for your family"

In a similar way, the family of this man want to acknowledge their father's legacy:
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"You were a beacon next to me, a harbour in my life/But now you have left, and my soul is broken." (from his wife)
"Thank you for teaching us to live/You told us that we dont need to conquer the world
You taught us integrity, trust, work and manliness/Necessary in life for it to have value
You will always be in our heart and in our mind/a great ideal, our greatest teacher"

The daughter's epigraph to her dad is a simple farewell expressing sorrow for his loss.
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On closer inspection, we realise that the bus shows German placenames which tells us that her father (and perhaps her family) lived abroad but wished to die in their homeland.

Sometimes we wished things had turned out differently, not just for ourselves, but also for others, as this message written from a daughter to her father tells us: 
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"Now that you are together with your two children, don't forget your gradson. I want you to find my son so he can have company and not be alone, because my beloved father, you know well how much it hirts to be lonely. Thank you for coming and visiting my son, on pain's bed. You were the only relative to remember that he was confined and helpless. Thank you, I owe you a big apology for your own loneliness."

This beautiful epigraph, written in the Cretan dialect, shows the love that the deceased had for his homeland. It also pictures the last home that the man had ever built, but didn't quite finish. God didn't take him away too soon - someone else did:
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"You walked the highlands of Kerameia and Sfakia/And with great enthusaism, you began buidling your 'koumo' (Cretan stone mountain hut).
You will be sorely missed by the Kerameia mathways/Which you traversed up and down, your back heavily laden.
Tell me Father how you are these days in Hades' palace/You, who would say you'd die if you were ever bedridden.
You stood against the monster for four years/And now that you have gone, the vacant space is big..."

A 'synteknos' laments the passing of a good friend: "I lost my favorite bead from my kehribari." Kehribari is the Greek word for amber, which is shaped into beads, to make a komboloi, the popular 'worry bead' necklace that Greek men (and lately women) are seen clicking at cafes. The word 'sinteknos' is used very much in Crete, signifying a friend 'by marriage': someone who shares a relationship due to being a best man at a wedding or baptising a child.
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The epigraph continues with matinades about the writer's love for Crete, and sorrow for not being close to this beloved uncle:
"... I'm far away in the deserts of the foreign lands, I want to be an eagle, to have wings on my shoulders, to fly across the Atlantic, to glide across Hania, to run over Keramia, to see the Dancer's house, and to bring you a pot of curly basil, Uncle."
The Uncle must have been a γλεντζές, a word often used in Greece, derived from Turkish, meaning 'lover of having a good time with song and dance'.

Sometimes we feel guilty about why our loved ones never reached out to us and we wished we could reverse the events:
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"... I knew your pure and humble soul but I didn't know your egotistic pride..."
"... you always cared for us and kept us close to you but you, mother, did not accept from any one of us, the moment you were leaving this phoney world, to hold you hand, but never mind, we don't hold it against you, we will love and remember you forever..."

This man died too early but he must have been very much loved. There are three mantinades written for him: one by his children, one from his wife and the last one from... his father- and mother-in-law:
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"You were our hope and our joy/And now we are full of sorrow for you, in our old age."

The epigraphs at Gerolakkos remind us that there is indeed life after death, and just as we lived life on earth as we wished, so too will we live life below ground:
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"Our humble grave resembles our hearts/That it's not dressed in marble is as we wished."

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Bonus photos: Gerolakkos is close to the village of Drakonas, so we decided to have lunch at Ntounias. We were the first customers for the day, and the food was still cooking in the clay pots. So we didn't order anything - we just let Stelios bring us one plate after the other, until we reached satiation point. By the time we left, there was hardly a spare seat in the restaurant.

And as we drove home passing by other villages like Therisso, we could see that the tavernas in those other places were also full, not just with locals, but busloads of visiting school children from other parts of Greece. And that's when I thought that perhaps Greece is now living in the post-crisis period (but we can talk about that next year, lest I speak too soon).

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