Monday, July 13, 2009

Where to Be Buried: The Immigrant's Choice

During my last visit to Fernwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, I noticed a new memorial in the Greek-American section. My visits here are personal (upkeep of family grave) but also academic (analyzing diaspora material culture). See posting, Buried in Bottles (June 7, 2008). New monuments come with a dose of sadness as, in many cases, I know the deceased individuals, and I learn of their death at the cemetery. One recent burial that I noticed during my visit was Fotios Karalis, who died five months ago at the age of 86. The tomb's meticulous upkeep, the constant burning of the candle and the fresh flowers reflect the family's commitment to the upkeep of memory. The Karalis monument contains typical features found in Greek tombs, even when the options are constrained by the regulations of a historical Protestant cemetery. One source of tension seen frequently in Greek-American tombs is the Greek desire to fence off the human body to avoid stepping (a sign of desecration), which contradicts the idyllic park aesthetics that require the uniform coverage of grass. Any kind of enclosure is a nuisance to the cemetery authorities who must regularly mow the uniform lawn. The fence seen in the Karalis monument is a common compromise between cultural traditions, limiting enclosure to the concrete base of the future tombstone. The fence communicates the desire to protect the body without actually demarcating the body and violating cemetery rules.

Pictures on tombs tend to be portraits of the deceased. The Karalis monument is extraordinary in its visual images, namely two laminated photographs nailed on the cross. Both images show the deceased in his village in Greece. The lower photo (left) is framed by a vertical wooden post belonging to a porch in the village. The person who took the photo stands under the porch, shooting Karalis in the distance. Once nailed on the cross, the wooden post captured in the photograph runs parallel to the wooden post. The real wood (of the cross) and the wood from Greece (holding up the house) reverberate with each other. The pins that hold the image of Karalis on the cross also reverberate with the image of Christ on the cross represented in an icon. The photograph surface is plastic. They have been laminated to protect the image from the rain. A close up of the laminated surface shows specks of grass, thrown up on the image from the mechanical mowers cutting the cemetery's lawn. Grass from the ground has invaded the vertical image giving it, at the same, time a three dimensional texture and dimension of reality. Such art-historical readings were not certainly not intentional. The haphazard juxtapositions between real and unreal, present and past, here (Philadelphia) and there (Greece) animate the monument as a work of cultural production.

The inclusion of photos from the deceased individual's homeland is on its own interesting. The Greek American immigration narrative expressed in songs and attitudes inlcudes a yearning to be buried in Greece. Such a return of the body brings closure to the immigrant journey. Being buried away from the extended family also translates to a fear of not being remembered ritually. Burial in the "xenitia" (foreign land) means that the tomb will be forgotten among strangers. The extended family will not be able to perform the continuous rituals of commemoration, the trisagions, the continuous lighting of the candle and the visual upkeep. Most Greek immigrants of Karalis' generation faced a powerful dilemma. If they were buried in the U.S., their tomb could be visited by their immediate loved ones (spouses, children) but not by the extended kin. With geographical mobility in the U.S., the next generation might not even be anywhere close to the city that the deceased was buried. Burial back in the village of birth in Greece, nevertheless, guarantees a locus of visitation, a point of origin. After all, you would be buried next to your parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. The photographs in the Karalis tomb resolve the dilemma in an interesting way. Although physically buried in the U.S., the photos on his tomb have transported him back to his village. The photos, in other words, facilitated that final journey home. Karalis is at both places.

My family is a good example of the geographical tensions of immigration. Like many immigrants, my father wished to be buried in Greece. Greek-American funeral homes, interestingly enough, do this frequently and have mastered all the bureaucratic steps along the way. It's not an easy matter to transport a corpse across international boundaries. For instance, the corpse has to be embalmed, a practice not common in Greece, and placed in a special metal coffin that is sealed and airtight. The special transport coffins are larger than the typical coffin used in Greece and, therefore, cannot fit in the pre-existing tombs. Commonly in Greece, the bones of the ancestors are interred and the new deceased is buried in the same location. When my father's coffin arrived, we had to excavate a new burial large enough to accomodate the high tech coffin. Having been embalmed, moreover, means that my father's body will probably never be interred because the body will take decades to decompose. But these are gorey details. The important conflict is that he is buried with his relatives (most importantly with his parents) but his immediate family can only visit him whenever they go to Greece, about once every two years.

My mother, on the other, hand was so patriotic towards her adopted country that she wanted to be buried in Philadelphia. Even though neither my sister or I live in Philadelphia, we still manage to visit her grave about once a month and perform the regular upkeep. My mother is the first member of our family to be buried in the U.S., so she has no family kin next to her. She's buried in the Greek-American section, but she is surrounded by strangers. My mother's family is from Athens and everyone has been buried in a family mausoleum. By choosing to be buried in the U.S., my mother is the first family member of many generations to be missing from the mausoleum in Athens.

This geographical choice of burial is not only complex but difficult to communicate. Consider the difference between my father and mother. Since we were little children, my father would take us to his village cemetery and involve us in the rituals of visiting the ancestors. After each annual visit, he would remind us that one day his bones would rest next to his parents, suggesting indirectly that one day, it will be us (my sister and I) visiting him. So when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack, there was no question about what his wishes regarding country of burial. My mother, on the other hand, had never expressed any choice to either her children or her siblings. When it was obvious that her cancer was terminal, we were placed in the rather sad position of having to ask her directly. Her choice to be buried in Philadelphia upset the rest of the family back in Greece. Not only had the immigration deprived them of their family member, but they couldn't even express their final farewell.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States