Anne Zouroudi: 'His fat, Greek funeral'
Out of morbid curiosity, I recently read a mail-shot aimed squarely at my demographic, namely an inducement to buy a funeral plan. And I was tempted. Might it not be a good thing to freeze the cost of my funeral at today’s prices? I could get the funeral I wanted, without my loved ones being saddled with the burden of its expense.
Insurers play on our fears of a pauper’s grave. We wish above all for dignity at our departure. But British funerals are so expensive. Footing the bill is a worry decades in advance. With flowers and the cost of embalming, a dignified exit isn’t cheap.
Yet elsewhere in Europe, the cost of dying remains low. I lived for a number of years on a Greek island, an idyllic-seeming place in the Aegean. Until tourism brought a level of prosperity, life there was tough, and the islanders’ view of death was, and is, matter-of-fact. When a man comes to his natural end, bury him promptly and move on.
The island attracted a number of ex-pats, including retired couples invested in the dream of a mellow old age in their personal Arcadia. Such a couple were Charles and Hilary. One summer, Charles became unwell. With failing kidneys, he swelled like a balloon.
As long as possible, he kept going, leaning heavily on a cane as he huffed and puffed his way to his favourite cafe. On the morning the emergency helicopter was called, Charles never made it to the helipad. He died in his bed, with Hilary at his side.
With rare gusto, the islanders leapt into action. Minutes after the death was certified, the passing-bells rang out. In the heat and with the corpse so bloated, the doctor advised of the risk of Charles bursting, and so the funeral was hastily scheduled for that evening.
Summoned by the bells, people arrived to conduct the necessary offices. A gang of builders laid Charles out on the kitchen table. A carpenter took his rough measurements and went to make the coffin. The priest said a few words over the body and announced he’d be back for the funeral at five.
As she cut the clothes off Charles’ body, the midwife complained about the flies. With string and a wine cork, she took steps to prevent leakage from the orifices, then swabbed him with ouzo-soaked cotton wool. Fresh clothes were brought, and Hilary was helped to dress her aniseed-reeking husband.
At 4pm, the plain pine coffin was brought in; the lid, by tradition, was left outside. Charles was heaved into his casket but he didn’t fit; the length was right but the carpenter had underestimated the bloating, and Charles was propped half-upright, his arms spilling over the sides.
With smoke billowing from his incense-burner and his cigarette, the priest ordered the coffin outside, where the lid was laid on top of Charles with no hope of its being nailed down. As they loaded him onto a battered farmer’s truck, the sweating bearers complained at Charles’ weight.
The evening was hot, the road steep. With the mourners slow on foot behind the truck and Charles’ arms bouncing at every pothole, the cortege progressed to the cemetery, to be met not by the calm of early evening but by the racket of a pneumatic drill.
Those same builders who’d carried Charles to the kitchen table were digging his grave but were late finishing the job, so mourners and deceased repaired to the chapel, where a short service was inaudible over the din. On emergence, with the grave still not ready and conversation impossible, all waited awkwardly by Charles’ side until the builders were done.
But the grave wasn’t deep enough; drilling six feet into bedrock needed more time. Charles was lowered in regardless and the coffin lid that didn’t cover him slipped off. The priest gave a curt blessing and tossed a handful of dirt on to the body. As the mourners walked away from the grave, the builders picked up their shovels to fill it in.
As burials go, it was cheap. Pass me a pen and I’ll sign up to that funeral plan.
The Bull of Mithros (Bloomsbury, £11.99) by Anne Zouroudi is out now in paperback