‘Forests may be gorgeous, / but there is nothing more alive than a tree / that learns how to grow in a cemetery.’
–Andrea Gibson, “Gospel Salt”
This line echoed through my head as I wandered through the First Cemetery of Athens. In her definition, this cemetery is by far the most alive place I’ve ever been. It was nothing like anything I’d ever seen. Instead of leaving a pebble or even a bouquet of flowers, people actually built gardens in the graves of their loved ones. As I wandered around, I saw several families gardening—one woman was even standing on what was presumably her family’s crypt, watering flowers planted in the earth. The air was thick with the smell of incense, burning candles, and dozens of different flowers. Many graves and plots were filled with pictures of the deceased and memorial items. Most plots were family plots with the names of entire families on them, some stretching all the way back to the nineteenth-century opening of the cemetery. The monumental graves were astounding, but the ones that were filled with memorabilia were far more moving.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was there during the funeral for Dimitris Christoulas, the seventy-seven year old pensioner who shot himself in Syntagma square on Wednesday. I could hear the funeral, but I avoided it, since I didn’t want to insert myself where I didn’t belong and I am acutely aware that I am a foreigner. These traditions are so different from the ones that I know. Christoulas operated within—or against—an entire framework that I have no knowledge of, and what little I know of it I am learning about only slowly. According to the Athens News, Christoulas’ coffin was wrapped in a Syrian flag. He may have been an Orthodox Christian, but the Church didn’t preside over his funeral because he committed suicide. Even though his funeral was held in Athens, his body will be cremated in Bulgaria, and not Athens because there are no crematoriums in Greece. Still, he apparently regarded himself as fully Greek (and certainly more Greek than the government). In his suicide note, he blamed his death on “The Tsolakoglou government,” finding continuity between the modern austerity measures and the Nazi collaborators of World War II. He regretted his age and thought that he was too old to start a revolution, and he wrote that he would stand right behind “a fellow Greek” who would “grab a Kalashnikov.” I can read all of these facts in dozens of papers—though they all seem to get their information from the Associated Press, which apparently reports on information published in The Athens News—but all of this still makes little sense to me.
Christoulas’ suicide note apparently castigates the Greek government because it “has annihilated all traces for [his] survival.” This crisis consumed him and drove him to the point where a dignified death became a viable alternative to life (or to the point where his life was so terrible that anything else would be preferable)—his motivations are entirely unknowable. there are hundreds of people violently protesting Christoulas’ death and the conditions which led to it, people who are ready to take up arms for the cause. A large tree in Syntagma has almost become a shrine for him and a center for this movement. And yet, other people in the cemetery yesterday were just as distant as I was. They went about their own business and mourned their own relatives during Christoulas’ funeral; they may have ignored the protests. Even at Syntagma Square today (after the riots, in the daylight, when everything had—at least temporarily—calmed down), there were dozens of people who were carrying on as if nothing had happened. This is the crux of the whole situation, I think, or at least the part that’s problematic for me. I can’t tell the extent to which the average Greek person is affected by the economic crisis. We’ve been going so far to the touristy or wealthy places—Plaka and Kolonaki, in Athens—or travelling around the country. In Mets/Pagrati, the only major sign of unrest is mostly-inscrutable graffiti. We mostly interact with people who are still employed, or who don’t talk about the economy (or perhaps they merely haven’t, yet). I can’t tell whether this is a matter that has captured the attention of every Greek, or whether people are pointedly ignoring the situation and purposefully pretending that nothing is going on.
At its heart, “Gospel Salt” is a poem about the way that the most beautiful things can only be born out of darkness and disaster. Part of me wants to see this shrine as the culmination of this beauty, but I know that this disaster has not passed. There might be more austerity measures. The protests might actually evolve into revolution. At least it’s an interesting time to be alive.
Text of the Suicide Note: http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/1/54580
Coverage of the Funeral: http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/1/54738
Coverage of the Funeral and reaction: http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/1/54745
Video Coverage of the Riots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XyZIEgJzVw
“Gospel Salt” (Live Performance): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QF91oTTMnLs