Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but I’ve always enjoyed visiting cemeteries. When I was a child visiting my grandparents at their farm, every fall we’d have a “Homecoming” or “Dinner on the Ground” at their small church, specifically to clean up the graveyard and tombs. It wasn’t unusual for us kids, after church, to play hide and seek, to roam the graveyard looking at the gravestones and trying to find the oldest one. Even now, when I go to the farm, I always stop off at the church and visit the graveyard where my parents and brothers, grandparents, great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, uncles, and many cousins are buried. I don’t stay long, just long enough to check that no one has vandalized anything.
And if you grew up in South Louisiana, as I did, you’re also used to grand cemetery monuments. In part, the above-ground tombs were necessary because if the area were below sea-level, flooding could produce startling and disturbing effects. Though now improvements in vaults mean fewer above-ground vaults, the problem of flooding still exists.
I haven’t wandered through St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans lately, but this summer I visited a cemetery in Athens, Greece, that has always reminded me of the beautiful sculptures and tomb architecture of New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana (and in Galveston, I might add).
The cemetery is Πρώτο Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών (the First Cemetery of Athens). Opened in 1837, it holds the tombs of many famous Greek individuals and families. If you’re in Central Athens, it’s almost impossible to miss it. It lies near the Panathinaiko Stadium (the 1896 Stadium where the Olympic torch is always seen prior to the Olympics) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Filled with pine and cedar trees, it’s bracketed between Markou Moussouro, Immitou, and Anapafseos Street (Eternal Rest Street). The main entrance is from Anapafseos Street. Though not a park, it is a green, peaceful site — about 500 square meters
Three churches are in the cemetery — the Church of St. Theodore, the Church of St. Lazarus, and a Catholic church. Within the cemetery are separate areas for Protestants and Jews. Many famous Greeks are buried here — heroes of the Greek War of Independence, politicians, actors, poets. It’s so large, with so many areas and paths, that it’s impossible to simply “find” a grave unless you’ve a) been there before (and even that can be near-impossible) or b) have managed to finagle the site number/area from the managers. There is no map, which is a shame. Otherwise, it’s easy to miss some of the tombs for well-known figures, as well as some of the most spectacular tombs.
I’d wandered through the cemetery before. This time, though, I was with the group of people in my poetry workshop. We were on the hunt for specific tombs — of some of the most important poets of modern Greece. Alicia (our teacher) had managed to get those precious site identifications, and slowly we managed to find them. It was a really hot day, though, and by the end we were flagging. It would be easy to get lost. Paths crisscross and even create small roads.
Green cypress trees and pines and flowering oleanders and other bushes make it a calm in the middle of a very busy part of central Athens.
Yet it was well worth the effort and the sweat.
The first tomb we found was that of Kostis Palamas (1859-1943). Palamas was a central figure in the literary scene of the 1880s, and co-founded the New Athenian School. Using the composition by Spiridon Samaras, he wrote the lyrics to the Olympic Hymn that was first performed in 1896; this was named the official Olympic Anthem in 1958. When Palamas died in 1943, during the German occupation of Greece, his funeral was became a major event. Angelos Sikelianos wrote a poem for it. Culminating in a demonstration of about 100,000 mourners, his funeral became a central event in the Greek resistance.
Angelos Sikelianos ((1884-1951) was one of the leading 20th century Greek lyric poets. Sikelianos and his first wife, Eva Palmer, instituted the Delphi Festival in 1927, hoping to foster spiritual independence and a way of communication between people — through the principles of the ancient Greek civilization. He was the first Greek poet nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he did not win. A prolific poet, he is not as well-known in Western countries as some of his fellow Greek poets.
Another grave that we sought out was that of George Seferis (1900-1971), a great poet whose poetry often speaks of exile and longing. Seferis was the pen name he chose; his name was Γεώργιος Σεφεριάδης, George Seferiadis. A career diplomat, Seferis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. In 1969, two years into the military junta that ruled Greece, Seferis made a strong public statement denouncing the Colonel’s Regime. Though he did not live to see the fall of the junta in 1974, he had become a popular hero for his stand against the regime. When he died, thousands followed his coffin through the streets to the First Cemetery, singing Mikis Theodorakis’s setting of Seferis’s poem “Denial.”
Yet another major poet of the 20th century was Odysseus Elytis (born Οδυσσέας Αλεπουδέλλης, Odysseus Alepoudellis, 1911-1996). Elystis, a romantic modernist, came to prominence in the 1930s. Elytis, like Seferis, opposed the military junta of 1967-1974. During the junta, he exiled himself to Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.
Besides seeking out these graves, we wandered for a long time. In that time, I found several other notable graves.
Heinrich Schliemann, the famous German amateur archaeologist who excavated Mycenae and other sites, has a monumental tomb for himself, his Greek wife, and her family.
Melina Mercouri, the actress and politician, is buried here also.
Near Mercouri’s tomb is that of Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the Socialist party (PASOK) and twice Prime Minister of Greece.
Perhaps the most striking bronze piece is dedicated to Greece, the mother, who starved for her children during World War II.
This is one of the most famous sculptures in the cemetery; by Giannoulis Chalepas,it depicts Sofia Afentaki, a girl who died at the age of eighteen from tuberculosis. Her family commissioned this for her grave. I’ve seen it several times, and it never fails to move me.
One monument stood out this summer — I’d not seen it before. It’s hard to miss though — it’s a ship:
Though it was hot, there were shady areas beneath trees. Occasionally breezes cooled us off. Water, of course, helped a lot. And mostly the cemetery was quiet, the quiet broken at times with birdsong,
While we were standing near the grave of Palamas, there was a man standing reverently, waiting for us to finish. He was, he told us in English, visiting there from New York and was there to clean the grave of a relative. That is not something that can be done without official permission, apparently, nor without paying a fee. Many people, he told us, in these difficult economic times, cannot afford to pay someone to keep graves neat and tidy, nor can they themselves pay to do that. As a result, many graves fall into disrepair and are overgrown or broken. However, he also wanted us to know just how important Palamas was, even now. “A very great man,” he said several times. Greeks revere their poets, even those long dead, like Palamas.
There are many places that tourists seek out in Athens. The First Cemetery is probably not one. Even without a guide or map of the many noteworthy graves, it’s well worth a visit. One of the great Greek poets, Constantine Cavafay, is not buried here, but I’ll leave you with one of his poems, which I think suits my blog and its inspiration.
Ideal and dearly beloved voices
of those who are dead
or of those who are lost to us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in our dreams;
sometimes in thought the mind hears them.
And for a moment with their echo
other echoes return from the first poetry of our lives —
like poetry that extinguishes the far off night.
As I close the blog tonight, it’s raining (again). I’ve gathered several books of Greek poetry and think I’ll spend some time with them tonight.