This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.
In the Greek village of Rizana—about an hour from the northern city of Thessaloniki—the living and the dead have lunch every year on the Sunday of St. Thomas. On that first Sunday after Easter, people gather at the cemetery in the village, fold out some tables and chairs, and have a feast on top of the graves of their loved ones, among marble inscriptions and fresh flowers.
The tradition itself goes back to the Homeric epics but was kept alive by Pontic Greeks—a group of ethnic Greeks originally from the shores of the Black Sea, who over the centuries migrated to Turkey, Georgia, and Russia. The Pontics at the cemetery in Rizana repatriated to Greece, where they've now brought their tradition of picnicking near the remains of their ancestors. It's not a day of mourning, but of sharing smiles, kisses, traditional piroshki, meatballs, tsoureki buns, and hot Russian vodka.
Rizana is a very quiet village—you can't even get to the center by car—but today, things start getting busy early in the morning. By 10 AM, cars are stacked near where the footpath into the village starts, right next to flower vendors who have set up for the occasion. The village used to have just one small cemetery, but the Pontic Greeks made sure that a second one opened in 1997, and that's where the visitors gather today.
Stefanos Oflidis, the president of the Association of Repatriated Pontics, explains how this new cemetery came to be: "Thousands of Greeks left Pontos and the former Soviet countries in the early 1090s," he says. "We settled in western Thessaloniki, and in the following years, our dead were buried either in Evosmo or in neighboring municipal cemeteries. Due to a lack of space, three years later their bodies had to be exhumed. That's not our idea of honoring the dead, so to avoid that, we started looking for a space where our dead could be permanently buried."
His father, Alexandros, initiated the quest to find new cemetery space, which became the first mission of the then newly established Association of Repatriated Pontics. Finally, Rizana local Lefteris Tepetidis—whose family came from Kazakhstan to Greece in the 1960s—agreed to donate 15 acres to build the cemetery in memory of his son, who was killed at a young age.
In the years that followed, relatives of the buried brought relics from Thessaloniki, built a church, and tended to the cemetery.
The graves were cleaned days ago, so now it's time for the tablecloths, plates, pots, and pans come out. It might sound a little grim to have a picnic on top of the graves of your loved ones—but it doesn't feel grim at all. Having entire families there and small children running around makes for a picture of celebration instead of mourning.
Meanwhile, no one is allowed to cry—people just cordially greet each other by saying "Christ is risen," and offer vodka and traditional dishes around.
The cemetery in Rizana is made up almost exclusively of family tombs of four to six meters [13 to 19 feet] wide. Most are fitted with black slabs of granite and have a picture of the deceased etched in them—sometimes as a blooming teenager, sometimes later in life. Often, the gravestone also depicts something the deceased loved in life: a motorcycle, a car, a camera, or a picture of the province where the buried was born—Sukhumi or Batumi in Georgia, Trabzon or Ordu in Turkey.
There are two or three statues, but not all are graves belong to wealthy people. Many are paved with ordinary tiles and plastic carpet, fine gravel, or simply a wooden cross and a candle—but all of them are carefully groomed.
"Most of us are ordinary people, but honoring our ancestors is very important to us. There aren't as many relatives coming on a day like this as there used to. Many Pontics have gone to work in Germany, or they can't afford the trip from Thessaloniki. Still, the Association does arrange for a bus on that day," says Stefanos Oflidis.
Oflidis is a dental technician, who now lives in Thessaloniki. He got there in 1991, after leaving the Georgian province of Sukhumi—shortly before the civil war between Abkhazia and Georgia broke out. "We always wanted to come back to Greece—we'd hear about it in the stories of our grandparents, whose hearts never really left the country. My grandfather was among the Greeks who were deported by the Soviets in 1949—he was brought from the Black Sea to the steps of Kazakhstan. When they put him on the train, he thought they were sending him back to Greece. After a few days, he watched the sun rise and realized that the train was traveling east."