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  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.