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The unburied dead: a macabre side of austerity

Sister left to deal with brother's decomposing corpse over long, hot weekend

Funeral parlour refused to refrigerate the body of a man without payment while his penniless sister waited for welfare offices to open on Tuesday to get the funds to bury him

Burying a loved one is now beyond the means of many (File photo: Reuters) Burying a loved one is now beyond the means of many (File photo: Reuters) An Athens women who had no means to bury her brother has spoken of the ordeal of having to keep his decomposing corpse in her sweltering apartment over the weekend while waiting for welfare offices to open on Tuesday.

Olga Nikolaidou, 61, told Eleftherotypia that after her brother Stathis, 64, died at home at 9pm on Saturday, she was unable to find a funeral parlour willing to refrigerate the corpse without payment.

Owing to the public holiday on Monday, welfare offices were closed until Tuesday.

"I set up three fans in the room, but the stench went everywhere. It was hot," said Nikolaidou, who said she lived a frugal existence with her brother.

He was unable to work regularly owing to problems with his heart, kidneys and thyroid as well hypertension and who was recognised by the authorities as having no means. A widow, she drew a pension of €557 a month, €270 of which went towards rent.

"The rest was not enough to feed both of us. But at 61, I simply didn't have the nerve to take on hard work," said Nikolaidou, who used to have a clothing repairs shop and worked a second job to make ends meet – until losing them both in the crisis.

"I'd already sold any gold and silver I had," she said.

One funeral home she approached on Saturday demanded €1,600 up front in order to keep the body until she could apply for financial assistance to bury him from the welfare office.

Hospitals were no help either, saying that ambulances are not allowed to transport the dead, unless they are victims of traffic accidents. As her brother had died at home and had a death certificate, it was beyond their responsibility, she was told. 

Desperate, she called the Athens archdiocese who told her to approach her local church. There, she was told to wait until Tuesday for the welfare office to open.

Help finally arrived when she managed to get on a morning television show. A funeral director said he would take on the burial at 11am on Tuesday morning, provided she could obtain a certificate from the welfare office beforehand stating that they would pay for it.

As Yiorgos Papandreou, responsible for cemeteries at Athens city council pointed out, at least in this case there was a relative who wished to bury the dead, which is not always the case, especially when the death occurs in hospital. When they can't cover the costs, many stay away, leaving the authorities with the responsibility of burying them.

As he explained, cemetery plots come at different prices and the cheapest ones are not always available. In cemeteries in Athens and many Greek cities, remains are exhumed after a three-year period to make way for new burials. 

* A Greek version of this article appeared in the print edition of Eleftherotypia on June 25

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Society
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Death
Cemeteries
Austerity