Sparta. Siesta. Nothing to do between 3:00-6:00 p.m. in July, when the thermometer hits 40 celsius (104 fahrenheit) and every shop and business is closed. A smart traveler seeks a cool oasis in an air conditioned hotel; but a fanatic researcher will not waste three precious hours. That’s when I visited the cemeteries.
Greek cemeteries are fascinating to explore. In modern times, they have become memorials to the deceased. Photos, flowers, icons, candles and personal items decorate the gravestones, making each unique. They become a sanctuary of mourning for the bereaved.
The first thing a visitor notices is that all of the gravestones are constructed of white marble and sit atop the ground.
This gravestone for Panagiotis G. Koniditsiotis in Amykles is unusual, because the marble slab on the top has been replaced with grass. It exudes an oasis-like feel under the hot July sun.
Invariably, the headstones face east. My research indicates that this is a common Christian tradition, based on the belief that when Jesus returns it will be from the east; thus, the deceased will rise from the grave to face Him.
As the photo above shows, these east-facing gravestones posed a serious problem when taking photos in mid-afternoon: shadows. As the sun moved west towards the Taygetos mountains, it shone over the top of the headstones, casting silhouettes on the engravings of the marble slabs. Also, it shone directly into my eyes, making it almost impossible to see the image I was photographing. It was pure luck that I was able to get decent pictures.
Many families have purchased cemetery plots, and the gravestone becomes a memorial for the entire family. Information about parents and their children are inscribed. It is especially helpful to find a married daughter buried with her parents, as her “new” surname will be etched in the marble. When photos are included, one has a visual mini-snapshot of the family structure. In the picture below, notice that Spyridon’s middle name was “Char” (Charalambos), the name of his father. This takes the researcher back one more generation.
The older gravestones are especially poignant. Some are in disrepair and have suffered neglect. Others are empty holes but the names are still inscribed on crosses–an eerie reminder of a Greek custom described below. This grave in Sikaraki, Laconia, especially touched my heart.
Georgia A. Chelioti died 21-11-89 , age 85, Christian martyr of Jehovah. The inscription is taken from the New Testament, John 6:40: And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life and I will raise him up at the last day.
An empty hole is indicative of a long-standing custom in Greece to bury a person for only 3–5 years, after which the remains are exhumed, the bones are cleaned, and then placed in an ossuary box. This is a sacred religious ritual, performed by a priest and attended by family. The ossuary box is placed in a building on the cemetery grounds known as an osteofylakeion. The candles, photos and other memorabilia that had been on the gravestone are transferred to the ossuary box kept in the building. I was hesitant at first to step into an osteofylakeion. I thought I would feel creepy; but to my surprise, I felt like I was standing on holy ground.
While exploring cemeteries in Agios Ioannis (Sparta), Amykles, Sikaraki, Mystras and Theologos, I took photos of gravestones inscribed with surnames that appear on my family tree. Many tombstones provided information that I had not found in documents procured to date. If I saw that “my people” were memorialized with photos, I felt a surprising and joyful sense of kinship. As I walked the narrow paths separating the gravestones, a sense of peace filled me. Many of these people were related by blood, by marriage, or by collateral relationships such as in-laws or godparents. Now they rested together, facing east, awaiting the resurrection promised them by their Orthodox faith.