NEWS

First Cemetery at mercy of grave errors

My suspicions were aroused when someone asked me how long it had been since I last visited Athens’s First Cemetery. Phoning around, I heard more complaints. Most of the people I spoke to were upset. Initially I assumed they were indignant about neglected tombs, untended lawns or any of the other things that keep the cemetery from being the Greek capital’s minor version of Pere Lachaise in Paris. In fact, what they all objected to is the 2-meter-high cement ossuaries that have encircled the neoclassical mausoleums and statues in the cemetery. Erected by the Athens Municipality department that is responsible for the cemetery, the ossuaries are objectionable in terms of aesthetics, historical appreciation and common sense. Contacted by Kathimerini, the Department of Traditional Buildings and Monuments at the municipality’s Architecture Directorate (to which the Athenian Monument Protection Committee belongs) professed ignorance of the matter. Although Athens residents have submitted complaints and photographs have been published, the department described the issue as «a surprise.» Sources say the original intention had been to place the ossuaries around the wall of the cemetery (though that was not an ideal solution either). The city authorities should tell us why the cement structures now surround monuments that belong to the history of 19th-century Greek sculpture. In Greece we appear condemned to interminably discuss the obvious when it comes to issues that civilized countries resolved decades ago, but we must make every effort to protect the few surviving remnants of urban history in Athens. The management of the First Cemetery gives the impression that they are not aware of the enormous value of the treasures with which they have been entrusted. And until they prove otherwise – in deeds, not mere words – this impression will linger Network Instead of being a source of pride and a major attraction, as are all such historic cemeteries in the world, Athens’s First Cemetery continues to be a headache. It’s remarkable how the municipality manages it, considering that there are European programs for the protection and conservation of cemeteries and their connection to networks that exchange information about new developments in protection and aesthetic enhancement. It’s worth seeing what Budapest has done with the Kerepesi Cemetery, a place of extraordinary beauty and atmosphere, where the tombs converse with nature. Similarly, the First Cemetery in Athens is part of a European dialogue that highlights the relation of city dwellers with death and how it is highlighted by sculpture. All this, however, seems to be way over the heads of the Athens cemetery administrators, for whom space is the vital issue. Certainly, practical problems arise in relation to every urban space. But opting for the most barbarous solution does nobody credit and raises questions about the suitability of officials and institutions. When a city like Athens, in the person of its officials, is blissfully unaware of its historic character and the need to protect its surviving treasures, then there is a serious problem.