Is it time to exhume the relatives?

Experience in Greece as a foretaste of future problems in England and Wales?

Last weekend, the BBC Magazine carried a piece entitled Why Greeks are exhuming their parents. This commented: “[c]emeteries in Greek cities are so overcrowded that bodies are often only kept in the ground for three years. Then families have to pay for exhumation – and for the bones to be kept in a building known as an ossuary. But many cannot afford to pay even for this limited degree of dignity in death.”

As elsewhere, the underlying problem in Greece is the increase in its urban population over the past 50 years, and now over fifty percent of the people are concentrated in the two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. Urban development around cemeteries has reduced the potential for their expansion, and graves are now usually rented on a three-year lease with an escalating price scale for any additional years; a permanent plot may cost up to €100k (source: BBC). However, other factors are exceptional: the alternatives to burial are limited, and with 98% of the population belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church, its views are critical. The Church teaches that a body must be buried in order to be resurrected at the second coming; it views cremation as a violation of the human body and forbids its members from reducing their bodies to ash.

Consequently, those baptised into the Orthodox faith must diverge from its teachings and travel abroad is they wish to cremate their loved ones; the Church will not perform a funeral service if it knows the body will be cremated, but this is often circumvented on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. Whereas public law in the UK has permitted cremation since 1903, the construction of crematoria in Greece has only been permitted since legislation was passed in 2006 and further amended in 2014. However, whenever plans are submitted, these are resisted by local communities and the Greek Orthodox Church; now nearly 10 years later Greece is the only country in mainland Europe without a single crematorium.


Whereas the situation has been exacerbated by the attitude of the Orthodox Church, the decreasing availability of burial space is not confined to Greece, and we have considered the UK situation in a number of posts. Readers will be aware that select committee identified potential problems in this area as far back as 2001, and for London in 1997. One wonders how close the UK would be to the Greece situation if the significant number of funerals was not followed by cremation, i.e. ~75%.

However, cremated remains are not exempt from these considerations, and in a recently-published judgment Re Astwood Cemetery [2014] Worcester Const Ct, Charles Mynors Ch., a church court in Worcester considered the exhumation of “ashes” from a municipal cemetery after only ten years, and their subsequent reburial elsewhere. We will discuss the implications of this judgment and other issues of time-limited burial in a subsequent post.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Is it time to exhume the relatives?" in Law & Religion UK, 1 December 2015,

5 thoughts on “Is it time to exhume the relatives?

  1. Exhumation to an ossuary after a period of years, recycling graves, is not new but the traditional practice in many Orthodox and Roman Catholic countries, for positive doctrinal reasons rather than lack of burial space. It doesn’t really equate with the current English trend toward portability of ashes.

  2. It’s an interesting comment on our (mis)understanding of the power of God that we think God cannot re-create our bodies on the day of the resurrection from ashes. If we think about it carefully, being buried in a coffin (even one lined with zinc) will not prevent the onward march of entropy.

    Given enough time cemeteries will crumble, so will coffins and their contents and return to their constituent atoms and molecules and disperse into the environment. We limit God if we believe that there will have to be a body in a coffin to enable us to rise on the last day.

  3. Indeed it is. Our war dead were given decent burial, thanks to the enlightened – and continuing – work of the War Graves Commission; but there was no obsession in those days with reassembling body parts.

    Pastorally, it is hard to challenge the muddled notions that fly around these days. I objected in some detail to an exhumation faculty from my churchyard [briefly noted in ELJ] by a petitioner who said ‘when I get to heaven I will not be able to look my parents in the face knowing that I let him [her husband, whose adultery and other issues came to light after his death] be buried on top of them.’ There were other factors involved, so as I had expected it went ahead. Photos were taken throughout to ensure that no traces were left, and he was duly cremated. Where is a proper Christian theology of the resurrection (as opposed to problematic family reunions) in this?

    Cremation, however, is increasingly seen as environmentally challenging; as Frank knows (for we are both members of the ecumenical Churches Funerals Group) there are less-damaging techniques coming forward…

    • The recent consultation on the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill raised the possibility of Resomation®: the water and alkali based method – alkaline hydrolysis – which breaks the body down chemically; and Promession: a freeze drying technique, which is similar to Cryomation®, the method based upon the use of liquid nitrogen and freeze drying techniques. The Government response stated that “since many of the existing techniques are still in development, and as it is likely that more new techniques will be developed, it is proposed that the Burial and
      Cremation (Scotland) Bill should include a power for Scottish Ministers to make regulations in relation to specific techniques”.
      However, with regard to their environmental impact, most of the supportive information appears to come from the developers of these techniques and focuses on the treatment of a body, rather than the upstream manufacture of the products used, or the downstream disposal of the products of decomposition. The production of liquid nitrogen is highly energy intensive, and the disposal of the products of alkaline hydrolysis is another issue to be addressed.
      The Consultation indicated significant support for some of these alternative process, but what appears to be absent is a complete “life cycle analysis” of the environmental impacts of each of these in comparison to burial and cremation.

  4. Pingback: Time-limited storage of cremation “ashes” | Law & Religion UK

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