Greek funeral traditions – candlelight, flies and bone cleaning

greek church

While staying in a great little Hostel in Ioannina – Backpackers and Travellers – I had the opportunity to speak to the owners. A very nice couple that made me feel like home. They taught me a lot about the Greek traditions and lifestyle. One of the topics that we touched on was how the funerals are held in the Orthodox tradition.

Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about old traditions here and lots of those customs got lost with the time, made more efficient and comfortable.

The singing

First, when somebody dies, the funeral needs to be done quickly, preferably on the same day or on the day after. Nowadays, if some family members need to travel for it, people can wait for longer. Traditionally the casket would be brought to the house of the deceased the night before the funeral. The women would gather around to sing throughout the night, the men would stay outside.

The burial

The body is buried in the ground, and not cremated. In the Orthodox tradition, the cremation of the body is forbidden. Why? Traditionally after a few years, the grave is open (yes, I know!) in order to check whether the body is ready. If it’s not ready after five years you need to wait for another two, and then another two years. Ready for what? For the bones to be taken out of the coffin. When the body dissolves completely into the earth, the bones are taken out, cleaned, and put in a box. This box will be held in a special chapel.

The bone cleaning

Traditionally old women were taking care of the bone cleaning. Today there is an entire profession around it. You can hire somebody to do it for you as well as somebody that will light a candle in the chapel every day.

The mourning

There are several traditions around the mourning period. First of all, after the death, a candle needs to be lit at all times for seven days. It’s very important, because the soul is still in the house and the light is the way the family can show that they still remember. If during this time you see a fly in the house, a butterfly, or another flying being. This might be the soul of the deceased showing itself. So if you ever find yourself in a Greek home for a funeral, don’t kill the flies or better yet, don’t kill anything 😉

A commemorative service is being held in the church after a week from the funeral, after 40 days, and after a year. Each time the family and friends will be invited. Afterward, some food like pastries and cakes will be served. Those ceremonies can be really big. My hosts told me that the last one they had in the family had 300 attendees! I said that it’s like a wedding, but apparently, they invited 1100 people (!!!!) to their wedding, so what do I know.

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