I’ve had a secret obsession with the First Cemetery of Athens for years. Secret because it’s well, morbid. Obsession because it’s eerily beautiful, slightly intimidating, for so much history and art rest here as one. I sit on a bench, watching cats stretch on the sunny patch on my father’s and grandparents’ resting place. It’s a breezy early summer day, and the branches of the cypress trees that line the grounds sing lullabies to the dead. Marble monuments mark out graves as far as the eye can see.
The First Cemetery was established in 1837, just a few years after the liberation of Athens from the Ottomans, when burial was officially forbidden in churches within the city centre. Each municipality had to construct its own cemetery, at least 100 metres away from the city, which back then must have felt far away, though today they have been absorbed into the urban fabric. The part of the cemetery facing the city, as a rule, had to be full of trees. A hill, for ventilation, was a bonus.
Anapafseos Street, which means resting place in Greek, leads up to the First Cemetery’s gates. It was one of the few roads that already existed beyond the city walls at that time, which officially ended at Hadrian’s Arch, the ancient gateway to Athens, stretching from there to the burial ground.
As the First Cemetery expanded, Catholic and Protestant sections were created. A Jewish section too, though it’s no longer in use. The resting place grew to 225,000 square metres, housing over 12,000 graves. Neoclassical tombs, classical angels of mourning, temples, sarcophagi, urns, busts, standing and seated sculptures, ornate crosses, monuments—this free, open-air museum has it all.
The marble used was almost exclusively from Mount Pendeli, in the north of Athens, and the original craftsmen were from Tinos, an island renowned for its marble sculptors. The anonymous creators of the elaborate crosses and stone epitaphs, were never recorded. These artisans died with their art, until the good and the great of Athenian society began to be buried here. “Sleeping Maiden” by Yannoulis Chalepas (the most celebrated sculptor from Tinos) is the most well-known artistic landmark, located in the square close to the church of Saint Theodore. But there are many more.
The hall of fame starts right after the church, to your left. First the graves of ecclesiastical dignitaries, then philanthropist Georgios Averof, actress and politician Melina Mercouri and her husband, film director Jules Dassin, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, former prime minister Andreas Papandreou, the Goulandris shipping family, actress Aliki Vougiouklaki, the author T.H. White, missionary Jonas King, architect Ernst Ziller, poets Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, musician Vasilis Tsitsanis… the list is endless.
But it doesn’t matter who lies in these graves, who chiselled their tombstones. I recognise some of the names, but barely know their backstory. You don’t need to know all this to feel the energy, the peace, the history. Walk the garden’s streets, soak in the art, and if you want to learn more, get your hands on “The First Cemetery of Athens; A Guide to its Monuments and History,” a comprehensive directory of a place one can easily get lost trying to navigate. I can’t think of a more enchanting place to lose an Athenian afternoon.
*The First Cemetery of Athens. A Guide to its Monuments and History by Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, Maria Daniil, translated by Deborah Kazazis. Published by Olkos Publishers.