On Friday, someone called me to read the Trisagion Service at their relative's grave here in our cemetery in Panorama (see photo above), as it was the day the body was being exhumed.
This practice of exhuming the body will probably strike most Americans, even Orthodox, as strange, but here in Greece it is standard practice. (See above for a photo of a recently exhumed grave.) The reason given is a practical one--lack of space. Grave sites, especially in the major cities (where Greeks prefer to live), are at a premium. One American newspaper article from 1999 estimated that it cost between $18,000 and $118,000 to buy a family plot (which usually contains enough room for two graves) in Athens. (The photo below is a family plot.)
If your family has its own plot, the body is buried and not disturbed unless and until another member of the family needs to buried. In that case, provided that the minimum three years required by law have passed, the body is exhumed and the bones are placed in an ossuary with the bones of other members of the family, or, if there is no such box, they are simply buried in another part of the plot, perhaps even underneath one of the coffins.
If, however, your family does not have its own plot, then most people rent a space from the municipality. According to the same article cited above, renters paid between $650-$1050 (remember, these are 1999 prices -- before the astronomical increases that came in with the euro after 2000) to rent a single space for the required three-year period. After this time, the body is exhumed and the family can rent an ossuary for about $60 a year (1999 prices again). If the family does not do this, then the bones are buried in a common area with everyone else.
If you click on the link to the article above, its agenda should be immediately obvious, but I have no reason to doubt the figures it provides. (I recently heard a priest estimate the cost of a single plot, just outside Thessaloniki, at around $10,000.) Of course, from the perspective of the secularized Orthodox Christians interviewed therein and probably the author, it is ridiculous and unenlightened not to simply cremate the bodies. But since Christianity views the body of a baptized Christian as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and since we believe that these bodies will be resurrected at the Second Coming, Christians have placed great value, for at least the last 1800-1900 years (at which point we have written documents confirming this as the early Christian view), on the physical remains of the departed.
As I've written before, the physical presence of our loved ones also allows us to continue to express our love for them, as the many lovely Greek traditions regarding care and prayer for the departed demonstrate so clearly. Spending this time at the cemetery caring for their grave and praying for one's loved ones not only benefits the departed but also the one who prays, as it serves as a reminder of death. I'm reading now the fairly new book about Elder Thaddeus of Serbia, and I'm reminded of the part in which he says that we must bear in mind, during prayer, these four things: death, the Judgment, heaven, and hell. "Everyone should remember his own death and bear in mind the end of his life, or at least be aware that this life is very, very short" (p. 117).
For what seems to be an interesting study of Greek funerary traditions, click here.