Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Geography of the Cemetery: A Sociolinguistic Approach

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

The Geography of the Cemetery: A Sociolinguistic Approach

Article excerpt

A short distance from the front marble gate of the First Cemetery in Athens--the most "venerable cemetery" in Greece (Llewellyn-Smith 96)--a casual observer will notice the elaborate monuments and the long epitaphs in formal language that follows the classical tradition of praising the deceased by remembering his or her most important qualities (Fig. 1):

      Rizis Athinaion Esthlon ernos
   enthade tymbos patroos Elenin
   keythei apofthimenin Ioannou
   Koutsogianni thygatera damarta
   de Ioannou Kosmopoulou

      Ou pontou klydon
   oud'anemotrofa kymata
   Kosmopoulon olesan Ioannin
   Arhiatron Basilikou Nautikou
   thremma Messinias euandrou alla
   xronos pandamator

      Ton de lithon Demetrios
   kai Kimon yioi ethekan
   goneusin auton baion

      (From Athenian origin, here
   lies Eleni, daughter of Ioanni
   Koutsogianni and wife of Ioanni

      Neither the rocking of the sea
   nor the wind-fed waves caused
   Ioanni Kosmopoulon to perish,
   Chief Medical Officer of the Royal
   Navy, brave son of Messinia, but

   This monument was erected by Demetrius and Kimon, sons, remembering
   the honorable lives of their parents.) (1)


The language is striking for its similarity to classical Greek in both sentence structure and word choice. For instance, consider the structure of this sentence: Ou pontou klydon oud'anemotrofa kymata Kosmopoulon olesan Ioannin. (Neither sea rocking nor wind-fed waves Kosmopoulon perished John; Neither the rocking of the sea nor the wind-fed waves caused Ioanni Kosmopoulon to perish.) The direct object (Kosmopoulon Ioannin) is not only separated by the verb (olesan) but actually precedes it, which is typical of constructions encountered in classical Greek. Similarly reminiscent of classical Greek are the words (damarta "wife," euandrou "brave," olesan "they lost") and the chosen form of the words used (goneusin "to the parents," epiggnomenois "remembering").

We will not find an epitaph like this at the cemetery of Kallithea--a community in the outskirts of Athens, founded by immigrants from Turkey after 1922. Since it is not a prestigious cemetery--no "members of prominent Athenian families ... are buried here"--we do not expect elaborate monuments and inscriptions, especially considering the observation that the "nature of the ritual display depends upon family income" and social standing (Dubisch 190, 194). Instead, we find here primarily "the repetitious row upon row of sameness" (Hamscher 21). The individual identity of the deceased is usually marked with a short epitaph in the low variety (dhemotike). For example: "PAO, I love you and when I die, I want the clover symbol on my grave" (Fig. 2).


The epitaph of the young PAO fan--the PAO soccer team represented with the clover leaf is written in the low variety and has none of the prestigious lexical and syntactic choices noted in the first epitaph; in fact, it contains spelling errors (k instead of ki, trifili instead of trifilli).

As these examples suggest, "death practices make statements about the living--where and how one is buried is an important part of one's place in society" (Bennett 123). Death is "an opportunity to display wealth and social accomplishments ... to make different kinds of statements," statements about the social identity of the deceased (Dubisch 195, 189). In Greek cemeteries, the most obvious statements about the socioeconomic level of the deceased are made implicitly--in the choice of cemetery and in the spatial arrangement of the graves within a cemetery--and explicitly--in the language of the epitaph and the design of the monument. In particular, a contrastive approach between epitaphs in the First Cemetery and those encountered in the Kallithea cemetery reveals that the epitaphs serve three purposes: as markers of personal identity (including economic resources and social class); as the written, socially accepted counterpart to the traditional lament songs that have been "restricted or even banned as part of an urban, more sophisticated attitude to death" (Holst-Warhalf 9)--in fact, I argue that the epitaphs in the non-prestigious Kallithea cemetery blend the folk tradition with the tradition of lament songs, thus creating a new genre, lament texts; and as a way of expressing the non-Western aspect of Greece, with their emphasis on emotions (as opposed to emphasis on rationality which is prevalent in Western society). …

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