Deceased Abandoned At Hospitals As Greeks Struggle To Afford Burials For Family Members

Category: World / Feb 27, 2013 5:02PM EDT
The economic crisis seems to be taking its toll on weddings and funerals in Greece, two very traditional and sacred rituals in the country. Some Greeks are having difficulty paying for funerals and cemetery plots, while church weddings are being substituted for a trip to city hall. Municipal authorities in Athens have reduced the cost of burial in the capital's cemeteries as people are having trouble paying for it, a phenomenon that did not exist in the past in the primarily Christian Orthodox country. "There was always money for the deceased, but now people are in a very bad state, a very bad state," said Athens City Councillor Nikos Kokkinos, who is responsible for cemeteries. In one Athens cemetery a section exists for the poor. Here the burial is free, paid for by the state. But now the number of people applying to have their kin buried in this section is on the rise. "Lately, five to six people are buried for free on average per month; a few years ago this was one or two people. They have now increased because of the economic crisis, and we are trying to do everything we can. We have reduced the costs a great deal," said Kokkinos. One official at the cemetery said people do not pick up their deceased from the hospital so as not to have to pay for the funeral. The official said people cannot afford a traditional marble covered grave, or to adorn it with flowers, and plots are left as simple dirt mounds overgrown by weeds. In Greece, due to a lack of space, residents can buy a plot in a cemetery - which is quite expensive - or rent it for three years. The cheapest plot rental price starts at 200 euros a year. After three years the body is removed and the bones are placed in a crypt. It costs 45 euros a year to keep them in a crypt, but Kokkinos said lately people cannot afford this either. "Very many can't afford to keep the bones of their relatives in the crypts and they leave them to the municipality. They cannot pay; it is a small sum for the year, but due to the economic crisis they cannot pay it." Athens Funeral Home Director Vassilis Tranou, whose family has been running the home for three generations, sees a large difference in how much people spend on funerals in the last years. The funeral parlour has reduced its prices, both due to necessity and for ethical reasons, and sometimes will do a funeral for free. The church sometimes steps in to help financially, he said. A funeral costs a minimum of 1,500 euros, a hefty price for people who have lost jobs or had their wages reduced, he said, and many don't have it. "We see a massive difference in the funerals. People don't have the money anymore to pay for them, or they don't spend like they used to on them, and Greeks are usually people who take great care with the people they have lost," he said. People will borrow from relatives or friends to carry out the funeral. He said sometimes people will leave the bodies in the morgue for several months until they can collect the money. Others try to sell something of value to pay for the funeral. "A man came four, five days ago, and he told me he lost his mother. He adored his mother. He adored her. He said he has been trying to sell two properties for the last two, three years, and the only money he has to bury his mother with is a family heirloom of four gold coins. It makes your hair stand on end," said Tranou. As a country closely tied to the church religious weddings are also a significant part of social life in Greece. But Greek weddings are a costly affair as the ritual requires many elements. Bride Nafsika Koutrokoi said it was a really difficult decision to have a religious church wedding, and the couple, one a butcher shop employee and the other a cable technician, made a lot of cuts in their plans in order to save money and make it happen. "We cut down on a great many things, from invitations to boutonnieres, on the reception, on everything. Because things are generally quite tough right now," she said after the wedding. Besides the classic bride's dress and groom's suit, invitations, reception, church fees and flowers, in a Greek wedding there are also the "stephana" - special wreaths that are placed on the heads of the couple, the "lambades" -metre high candles wrapped in flowers placed at the altar, and "boutonnieres" - candy wrapped in bags of tulle - which are given to every guest. The industry is huge in Greece, from the specialized shops to wedding planners. According to the Greek Statistics Service (Elstat) since 2000 an average of 40,000 church weddings took place each year until 2008. In 2009, when the financial crisis began, they fell to 34,000. By 2011 the number of religious weddings had fallen to 28,000. Between 2009 and 2011 - in the middle of the financial crisis - they fell 17 percent. At the same time, getting married at city hall skyrocketed. In 2000 there were some 8,000 civil unions. In 2011 it had risen to 26,000. "Definitely, there is a drastic drop. Of course, it was gradual at first. From 2009 and afterwards, the number of weddings began to decrease and people turned to civil weddings. But now we are at a decrease of about 35 to 40 percent," said wedding shop owner Anastasia Theophanopoulou, whose family business has sold wedding supplies - such as wreaths, lambades and boubounieres - for decades. Theophanopoulou says now the first thing customers ask is what is more affordable, but with the cost of supplies still high, it is difficult to lower prices. "Whatever is cheapest, which often is not possible because the cost of everything is rising," she said. A country wide survey by a Greek business organisation - the Institute of Small Businesses - of 1,207 households of low and middle income families shows they have drastically decreased their spending on entertainment, gifts, restaurants, clothes and food. Some 93 percent of the households have had wage reductions in the family, while one in 10 households have at least one family member unemployed due to the crisis. Some 40 percent are behind in paying bills, while some 47 percent owe at the bank. According to ELSTAT, the poverty rate in Greece has reached 20 percent. (Video Source: Reuters)