The Peloponnese, Greece
Somewhere in the Lower Mani, we stopped to stretch our legs. Thordis took us down a dusty, narrow road that ended at an old church, one that had originally been built in the 1000’s and boasted primitive Byzantine architecture.
We couldn’t go inside so we strolled through the graveyard, instead. That is where I learned about old Greek burial rites. Traditionally, the corpse was interred for three to five years before being exhumed for examination. If the bones were clean, the soul had gone on to heaven and the remains were washed and housed in the family mausoleum. If there were still bits and pieces of body left, things hadn’t gone well for that soul.
Not everyone could afford to build a small house for their dead so some bones went into community ossuaries and some into bone boxes, small above-ground graves. Or coffins. A mix of both, I guess.
As we explored the cemetery, I was surprised at the number of newer mausoleums and monuments. I don’t remember if the graveyard was still in use but it had been in the last century. A thousand years of bones eternally slumbering together. We have nothing like that here in the States.
As I crested a hill, I found my eyes level to one of these bone boxes, a rectangle of stone almost 3′ long and 2′ wide with pieces of slate making the cover. It was ancient, encrusted with lichen of varying colors.
Once on higher ground, I could see the stone roof shingles had fallen in, exposing two skeletons. Their gray bones huddled together, skulls at the head of the box, resting atop the pile of their bodies. One skull was nearly upside down but still staring straight at me, the other skull leaned its cheek against the first, watching its mate. They were open to the sky, to the sun and rain, to the light of day and the stars of night. To eyes like mine. I wanted to cover them back up, to return their privacy and their protection, but I didn’t know if it was right to touch their resting place. It’s not my country, I didn’t know the rules.
Thordis was right behind me; she also saw the pieces of slate as well as the trash that had fallen inside the small tomb. She reached in, removed a plastic cup, then started to rebuild, gingerly putting each rock piece back in place. I hurried over to help; we reassembled the roof, forming a whole out of broken parts, covering the residents once again, returning them to the dark, to privacy, to peace, keeping them from rain and sun, from prying eyes and curious hands. In that moment, I loved them. I felt like a caretaker tucking sleepers in at night, wishing them lovely dreams. Also in that moment, I saw that doing the right thing is far more important than following social norms, perceived or otherwise.
This post is dedicated to Tyler who reminded me to tell this story and is for Thordis who gave me the gift of this experience in the first place.