The beauty of Athen's 1st cemetery.

I've always loved the First Cemetery of Athens! Even as a child,  following my godmother to clean and tidy our family grave, I was soothed by the deep shadows of the cypresses,the constant birdsong and the profound peacefulness of the place.
Not to mention the beautiful statues ,which have gained the cemetery the title of "the best open-air gallery of Athens".

Lush shadow and peace right in the middle of the city, by the banks of where Ilissos river once flowed.
A few days ago I woke up determined to visit it. Checking the date I realized it was exactly 27 years since my mother passed away and exactly 17 since my great aunt and godmother died. So, I grabbed a handful of flowers and the camera and spend a couple of hours  paying my respects and taking pictures. 

It was a glorious sunny day .
One of the angels of the Pesmatzoglou family monument was in the shade,the other on the bright sunshine.

The First cemetery of Athens was founded a few years after the new Greek State had welcomed-well not really but whatever-it's first King, a German prince,Otto. It was 1834 when the cemetery first opened it's gates and since then it has offered eternal rest to anyone who has been anyone in Athens:prime-ministers and generals,heroes of the revolution and poets, famous actors and composers, archbishops and pop idols but also to common people wise enough to buy a plot there in time (as my great grandfather did in the 1920s).

A brave general with an impressive mustache and under his glare, one of the selfassured and plumb felines of the cemetery. Notice the resemblance???

What I really love to do is to read the inscriptions on the older of the graves and imagine their story. Who was Kathrine who died 18 years old in 1891? I'm almost certain she died of TB, rampant in those days. Her grave is left to the tender care of mother Nature ,a sign that the family has died away.

Sophia has also been 18 when she died of TB. But her grave is the most famous in the cemetery. The sculpture of the young woman by G.Halepas, a legendary artist of the 19th century, is known as the "Sleeping girl of Halepas" .Every single day for more than 140 years, there is a fresh flower in her hand .

A beloved wife, a rather sour looking seated matron ,Glory or History in very flimsy clothes pointing to an inscription (unreadable now due to the elements) and a bunch of Egyptian Sphinxes on a famous and extremely wealth merchant's monument...
Hundreds of life stories-remembered or forgotten- hundreds of marble faces eroding under the bright sun.

My mother's family had always had a very friendly relationship with death. Every Saturday, during Lent in Greece, is dedicated to the souls of the departed. In anticipation of Easter, family graves have to be spotlessly clean and supplied with fresh flowers. So, many years ago, my godmother used to organise cleaning trips to various dear departed ones,armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and lots of delicious ham sandwiches.

The cemetery trees are a heaven for all kinds of birds. They get fat by gorging on the,traditional for memory services, boiled wheat.
 We used to start at N.Smyrna cemetery "to visit great aunt Elpiniki and great uncle Savvas", then to the beloved First to "say hi to her parents (and my great grandparents)". While vigorously scrubbing the marble with lots of water and soap, she loved to tell me wonderful family stories- wars, romances, and scandals all over the Balkans! Then we used to have lunch in the shade of the cypresses before heading back home. What a treat !!
 "Bless her soul!", I thought grabbing the soap and a bucket of water! The grave was under a carpet of pine tree needles and needed a good scrub!
I then left the flowers in the vase and headed for the exit.

A funerary procession passed me by near the gates! And just three feet away,fur sparkling, eyes alert, Life posed for the last photo :) 

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post! A wonderful story and special memories to share. I so enjoyed reading about your visits with your grandmother and the good experiences you had. This is a perfect example of something totally alien to me: I've only been in a cemetery a few times in my life and my family has never been interested in burials, only cremation. So it's fascinating to me, reading about this tradition of coming to clean a grave and leave flowers, spending time to pay respect to the deceased. I see it in movies, I read it in books, and I see that you do this too, but not me, so I appreciate the inside story!

    I really loved the pictures too! Wonderful sculptures!! I also loved the kitties, aren't they cute! In regards to your commnent wondering about who the people were in their former lives, I do remember once, when I went to a cemetery as a child, doing the very same thing. I made a game of trying to find the oldest grave, and my brothers and I found some in the 1800's!

    I thought it was really neat that the Sleeping Girl of Halepas has a new flower in her hand every day after all these years. Amazing!

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful photo essay! I really enjoy them so much! :)