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American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology:
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e3182156405
Original Articles

Guidelines for the Recognition of Cemetery Remains in Greece

Eliopoulos, Constantine PhD*; Moraitis, Konstantinos PhD†; Reyes, Federico PhD‡; Spiliopoulou, Chara MD, PhD†; Manolis, Sotiris PhD*

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From the *Department of Animal and Human Physiology, Faculty of Biology, and †Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, School of Medicine, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Athens, Greece; and ‡Stratford Road, London, UK.

Manuscript received January 7, 2009; accepted September 18, 2009.

This article was presented at the 16th European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, August 28 to September 1, 2006, Santorini, Greece.

Reprints: Constantine Eliopoulos, PhD, Department of Animal and Human Physiology, Faculty of Biology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Panepistimiopolis 157 84, Athens, Greece. E-mail:

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Forensic pathologists frequently consult anthropologists for the identification of skeletonized human remains. These remains may be the result of criminal activity or remains that were unearthed because of erosion, or during construction projects. In some cases, human remains that had been previously buried in a cemetery may be the subject of a forensic investigation. Early recognition of cemetery remains prevents unnecessary efforts and conserves precious resources. One of the key characteristics of cemetery remains is the presence of embalmed tissue. However, there are countries where embalming is not a common practice, and other clues must be sought for identifying previously buried remains. Current funerary customs in Greece and, in particular, the tradition of exhumations result in a large number of misplaced human remains. The present study presents examples of cemetery remains from Greece and offers guidelines for recognizing changes on skeletal remains that may be indicative of a cemetery origin. Location of discovery, condition of the remains, and the types of associated artifacts are all factors that aid forensic anthropologists in identifying cemetery remains.

Forensic anthropology is an emerging discipline in Greece, with less than a handful of scientists being actively involved in it. Currently, forensic anthropologists in the country are engaged in medicolegal casework, which is conducted at the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology of the University of Athens. Other areas of practice for forensic anthropologists include research in human identification and participation in international projects involving the excavation of mass graves. Some of the cases submitted for examination include cemetery remains. These are defined as human skeletal remains belonging to individuals who had been legally buried in a cemetery. Renovations or closures of cemeteries or even the distinctive nature of the Greek funerary customs may result in the misplacement of human remains. To save on resources spent investigating such cases, some guidelines are offered that aid in the early recognition of cemetery remains. Previous studies in North America emphasize the presence of embalmed tissue and embalming artifacts as the main indications of remains from a cemetery context.1,2 The main difference of cemetery remains in Greece is the absence of embalmed tissue, because embalming is not a routine procedure in this country. Embalming is not commonly performed in other parts of the world, and the guidelines offered here may be of interest to forensic practitioners in such countries where embalming is not frequently practiced or is forbidden.3

Some of the key characteristics of cemetery remains in Greece include the location of discovery, the condition of the remains, the presence or absence of specific skeletal elements, and the nature of any associated artifacts.

The guidelines presented in this work are derived from observations made on cemetery remains during the creation of the modern human skeletal collection at the University of Athens, which consists of 225 documented skeletons.4 Other sources include forensic cases submitted to the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the University of Athens and cases encountered during exhumations conducted for medicolegal purposes.

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To be able to recognize cemetery remains, a forensic anthropologist needs to have a sound knowledge of the funerary customs of the local society.

Today, in Greece, the vast majority of the population belongs to the Christian Orthodox faith (approximately 97%)5; therefore, it is appropriate to consider the funerary customs as these are dictated and practiced by the Greek Orthodox Church. In addition, current Greek laws concerning the disposition of human remains should be taken into account. In regard to embalming, it is not performed regularly, with the exception of the cases where the dead are to be transported to or from another country. Another instance where embalming is practiced is for prominent figures of society, where the remains are placed in a church for public viewing for 2 or 3 days.

The customary treatment of the body, once death has been ascertained, includes cleaning, clothing, and placement in a coffin. The hands and sometimes the lower jaw are tied together so that they are not affected by the development of rigor mortis.6 In the past, all these activities would be carried out by the family of the deceased, but in recent years, funeral homes make all the necessary preparations. After a funeral service that takes place in the church, the coffin is taken to the cemetery where it is lowered into the grave. The orientation of the body in the grave is the feet being on the east side and the head to the west, according to Christian tradition. Within a few days of the funeral, a marble structure is built over the grave. Families usually visit the graves where they place flowers and light candles and incense.7

However, what sets Greek funerary customs apart is the practice of exhumations. Typically, 3 or 5 years after the inhumation of an individual, the remains are exhumed and placed in a metal box. This practice originated in monasteries, where space was usually limited. The remains of monks were exhumed after a number of years so that there was place for additional inhumations. Slowly and for practical purposes, this tradition was adopted by villages and cities throughout the country and has been incorporated into religious practice.8 For the storage of the boxes containing exhumed remains, special buildings within the cemeteries exist, known as ossuaries. After a number of years in the ossuary, the remains may be disposed of in a communal underground pit, also located within the cemetery.

In contrast to other European countries where cremation is widely practiced, it was only recently legislated in Greece.9 In the past, those who wished to have the remains of their relatives cremated sent the remains through a funeral home to neighboring countries where this procedure was performed.

As a result of the funerary tradition of exhumations, large numbers of skeletons are present above ground at any given time in Greece. Therefore, it is not uncommon to have human remains that are misplaced for a variety of reasons. For example, cemetery workers may discard skeletons when the ossuaries are filled, especially in rural areas where there are no underground pits. In addition, unclaimed skeletons may be given by cemetery authorities to medical students who use them for studying human anatomy. This takes place only after an official application has been submitted to the cemetery director. At the end of their studies, the students will either pass the skeletons on to other students or dispose of them in refuse containers or secluded, nonresidential areas. Another manner in which human remains may be misplaced, which, however, is rare, is the unauthorized removal of remains from some ossuaries by individuals who wish to perform practical jokes.

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Greek cemeteries are operated by the municipalities in which they are located. With the exception of some family graves that are permanent, the majority of graves are reused at intervals of 3 years. The same is true for smaller communities such as villages. Here, however, the trend of shrinking populations does not present a problem of space in cemeteries; therefore, exhumations may take place after 5 years.

The practice of exhumation and reuse of the graves ensures that cemeteries continue to be operational, because there is always space for new burials. A typical cemetery of relatively large size in the area of Athens has 20,000 graves and 15,000 boxes of exhumed remains stored in the ossuary. In some instances, cemeteries have to close so that the municipalities use the land for other purposes. In cases like these, the closure is not complete, but it involves only nonpermanent graves. Therefore, only part of the cemetery land may change its use. Permanent graves, which are usually located near the cemetery entrance and take up a small portion of the property, are rarely relocated. Two partial closures have taken place in the greater Athens area in recent years. The cemeteries of Neapoli and Anastasi have closed their areas of nonpermanent graves. This has been achieved gradually by not conducting any new inhumations in the past few years. When remains are found at or near old cemeteries, there is a high probability that these are not of forensic interest. However, location alone is not conclusive evidence for the presence of cemetery remains, and a proper assessment must take into consideration some additional factors, the most important of which is the condition of the skeletal elements.

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A number of factors may affect the degree of decomposition and overall condition of cemetery remains. Time since death, the condition of the body at the time of burial, and the microenvironment of the grave are elements related to the physical traits of the remains that will be observed at the time of examination.10 Embalming has been noted as a key factor in the identification of cemetery remains. Researchers from North America, where embalming is very common, have described a number of attributes encountered in embalmed tissue.1,2 In Greece, however, embalming is not common, and the few embalmed bodies are usually buried in permanent graves.

Observations on a large number of cemetery remains in Greece have resulted in the identification of a number of traits that are indicative of their origin. Most notable is coffin wear, a finding that has been described in other studies.1,11 Coffin wear refers to the erosion of pressure points of the supine skeleton, often observed on the occipital, scapular spines, humeral heads, spinous processes of the vertebrae, sacrum, innominates, and femora (Fig. 1). This erosion may be slight and affect only the superficial layers of the cortical bone, or in some cases, it may extend to the point that the underlying trabecular bone is exposed. In Greece, all coffins have a layer of sawdust in the bottom to absorb any decomposition fluids. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find sawdust adhering to the posterior surfaces of bones. Another trait found by the authors is the presence of both head and facial hair in many cases, a finding previously reported as being the result of the embalming process.1 Similarly, dehydrated brain tissue was found in cemetery remains in Greece, although the bodies had not been embalmed. These 2 unexpected finds may be the result of the hot and dry climate of Athens. Such climatic conditions could lead to the dehydration of tissues and prevent decomposition. The effect of the environmental conditions is further supported by the fact that mummified tissue was found in some remains, especially in the hands and feet.

Figure 1
Figure 1
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One of the standard procedures in cases of unexpected or violent deaths is the forensic autopsy. This process leaves its marks on the human body, and as expected, some cemetery remains possess the autopsy artifacts. First, the cranium is sectioned with an oscillating saw, to enable the examination of the brain.12,13 There are different types of autopsy cuts of the cranial vault, and some may be mistaken for perimortem trauma, especially in cases of fragmentary remains (Figs. 2A-D). Therefore, it is useful to be familiar with the characteristics and variation in autopsy cuts of the cranium. Another procedure that is typically performed during autopsy in Greece is the placement of absorbent fabric material within the cranial cavity after examination of the brain. The reason for this procedure is to prevent slippage of the skullcap from the base of the cranium during suturing of the head and to reduce the possibility of fluid leakage. During autopsy the ribs, sternum and clavicles are sectioned by saws or rib shears for the removal of the breastplate to enable the inspection of the thoracic viscera (Fig. 3). In addition, incisions to reflect the skin and subcutaneous tissue and expose the internal organs along the thoracic wall may result in cut marks on the ventral surface of the ribs.14 Anthropologists should be aware of the location and nature of these cuts so they are not confused with those produced in cases of intentional dismemberment or other types of sharp force trauma.

Figure 2
Figure 2
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Figure 3
Figure 3
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Remains that have been used by medical students usually have a uniform bleaching covering all surfaces of each bone. Most students clean the skeletons by use of household bleach, which makes them white but may also cause chemical erosion. In some cases, the bones have been drilled and articulated with wire (Fig. 4).15 Sometimes, bones used by students exhibit evidence of excessive handling, in the form of postmortem fractures. Furthermore, remains that have been taken from ossuaries and used for practical jokes may have residue of candle wax, paint, or even writing on them.

Figure 4
Figure 4
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Another sign that is suggestive of cemetery origin is the presence of excavation damage to the bones. This type of postmortem damage is most often caused by shovels, picks, and other tools used by cemetery workers. To make a correct assessment of the condition of the remains, it is necessary to have contextual information. Therefore, the examination of the scene by the anthropologist is essential so that all the taphonomic parameters can be considered.16

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In addition to the physical appearance of cemetery remains, artifacts that are found in association with them may provide clues to their origin. Some of the most obvious artifacts are remnants of the coffin. These can include nails, handles, trimmings, or pieces of wood. Since the mid-1980s, the material used for coffins is MDF (medium-density fiberboard). Before that time, all coffins were made of oak, chestnut, or walnut. Aside from the material being used as an aid to establish chronology, some funeral directors can approximate the year of manufacture of a coffin, based on its stylistic design.

Artifacts that may be found in association with cemetery remains also include crosses and icons that are placed in the coffin with the body. Pieces of marble, plastic flowers, oil lamps, incense holders, and framed photographs can also be found with the remains, as these are commonly part of the grave. Embalming artifacts are rarely found, because this practice is not widespread in Greece.

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The current work was prompted by similar publications based on observations in North America, where burial customs are very different. Colleagues from countries where embalming is not widely practiced may benefit from the indicators presented in this article, so that cemetery remains are recognized early in the investigation. To identify skeletal remains that are not of forensic interest, a combination of the attributes presented here must be evaluated, because relying on a single indicator may be misleading. It is important to stress that forensic anthropologists should be familiar with local funerary traditions, so that they can recognize cemetery remains. The purpose of this is not to stop an investigation, but rather to help place investigation efforts into the right direction, thereby saving valuable time and other resources.

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The authors thank Mr K. Vervitas, vice president of the Athens Association of Funeral Directors, for information regarding practical aspects of funerals in Greece. They also thank Dr W. D. Haglund for his very useful comments during the preparation of the article.

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1. Berryman HE, Bass WM, Symes SA, et al. Recognition of cemetery remains in the forensic setting. In: Haglund WD, Sorg MH, eds. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1997:165-170.

2. Rogers TL. Recognition of cemetery remains in a forensic context. J Forensic Sci. 2005;50:1-7.

3. Adams VI, Ludwig J. Autopsy law. In: Ludwig J, ed. Handbook of Autopsy Practice. 3rd ed. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press; 2002:159-165.

4. Eliopoulos C, Lagia A, Manolis S. A modern, documented human skeletal collection from Greece. HOMO. 2007;58:221-228.

5. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. International Religious Freedom Report 2008: Greece. US Department of State Web site. September 19, 2008. Available at: Accessed December 21, 2008.

6. Green J, Green M. Dealing with Death: A Handbook of Practices, Procedures and Law. 2nd ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2006.

7. Danforth LM. The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1982.

8. Christodoulou TS. Regarding the Funeral [in Greek]. Athens, Greece: Omologia; 2004.

9. Greek Law 3448/06, Article 35.

10. Gill-King H. Chemical and ultrastructural aspects of decomposition. In: Haglund WD, Sorg MH, eds. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1997:93-108.

11. Ubelaker DH. Human Skeletal Remains: Excavation, Analysis, Interpretation. Washington, DC: Taraxacum; 1989.

12. Valentin F, d'Errico F. Brief communication: skeletal evidence of operations on cadavers from Sens (Yonne, France) at the end of the XVth Century. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1995;98:375-390.

13. Knight B. Forensic Pathology. 2nd ed. London: Arnold; 1996.

14. Sheaff MT, Hopster DJ. Post Mortem Technique Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Springer; 2005.

15. Sledzik PS, Micozzi MS. Autopsied, embalmed, and preserved human remains: distinguishing features in forensic and historic contexts. In: Haglund WD, Sorg MH, eds. Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains. Boca Raton, FL: CRS Press; 1997:483-495.

16. Haglund WD. The scene and context: contributions of the forensic anthropologist. In: Reichs KJ, ed. Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of the Human Remains. 2nd ed. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas; 1998:41-62.


anthropology; skeletal remains; autopsy artifacts; cemetery

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.


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