Greek cemeteries have always looked like an artistic kind of heaven. Typically on light grey fields of rocks, the graves are made of marble and sit in boxes above the earth like little keys on a piano. When you look out, there’s only a sea of crosses – the graves are ornate, sometimes with glass and floral decoration. They seem unusually light, and while visits can be painful, they hardly ever feel truly grim.
My family’s graveyard is in a small village along the Gulf of Corinth. It is filled with my dad’s grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my grandmother’s siblings and in-laws. Every year I visit, the whole family goes at least once to light incense and replenish holy water. The evening mountains across the gulf turn purple; the perimeter is dotted with palms and cypress trees.
My dad and grandparents emigrated to the United States at the end of the Sixties. My grandmother was the middle of five sisters and the only one to ever leave Greece, but my grandfather’s brother and wife eventually joined him in our small town in suburban Ohio. Almost every year that I can remember, my grandparents went back to the village for just short of five months, with only occasional years off. As they got older, they skipped visits less. As they got older, the family plot inevitably filled.
My grandfather’s brother, my great uncle, died tragically and suddenly just three weeks ago. He had lived in the same house for 50 years – my dad (in true Greek fashion) lived next door to him for more than ten. With my grandmother’s death in 2014, my uncle’s death marks the final cut of my grandfather’s ties to his life in his American home. This year more than ever, my grandfather could have used a trip to see family in Greece. But instead, he had to bury his brother just a few feet away from where he had buried his wife and return to his house on his own.
On Thursday (2 July), news broke that Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father, had travelled via Bulgaria to circumvent Greece’s ban on direct UK flights to visit his holiday home in Pelion. Johnson insisted that he was there on “essential business”, getting his property prepared for the “upcoming letting season”. Like his son, Stanley Johnson has adopted the persona of a loveable doof – participating in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and appearing regularly with Made In Chelsea’s Georgia “Toff” Toffolo, playing the role of semi-clueless grandad. He’s not the father of the PM, an ex-MEP, or a visible, powerful man, no – he’s just an indignant pensioner! Dammit, he’s going to get what he wants!
While this story may serve as fodder for a brief period of public outrage, it seems inevitable that it will be remembered like this: as another gag, another punchline to be used on topical panel shows. It will be barely remembered, just another story about a Boris Johnson-adjacent man for whom the rules simply don’t apply.
Greece has handled the coronavirus outbreak remarkably well, especially in comparison to many parts of Europe. Currently, the number of infections is going up only by the double digits per day and total deaths still remain below 200. While it’s hard to say why its response has been so good – beyond the obvious evidence of locking down early and the public following rules – Greeks may tell you that, culturally, the way Greece functions is conducive to keeping things contained. Outside of the cities are incredibly insular villages, like my family’s own, where the increasingly elderly populations rarely leave. Cemeteries across the country have been mercifully spared extra work.
That is the reason why, this year, my family and countless others have chosen to forgo visits. Not because we can’t, or out of fear of catching anything ourselves, but because of the danger we pose to these otherwise untouched regions. The danger we are to the people we’ve come to see. And as I think of my grandfather mourning, alone, unable to even take respite at his son’s home because of the memories that lie on the other side of the fence, I can’t help but feel despair and panic at the callousness of Stanley Johnson – and feel that he must have considered all these factors unimportant when making his calculations.
Most of my closest relatives are old, with the youngest ones creeping into their seventies. We all understand that each visit may be our last, and Greeks say this quiet truth loudly. I can’t get through most visits without one of my great aunts crying and thanking Jesus for another day, and this melodrama is common – it has always been part of my norm. But I find myself having intrusive thoughts, that the next time I go I’ll be lighting incense for my family members. Until this news, I felt I had to accept that there was nothing I could do. That at least others would also be avoiding these unforced errors that could speed up the already ticking clock.
The past month has left many feeling like there’s an echo inside our heads. “One rule for one and one rule for another” is a refrain so common, we feel like we’re losing my mind. Whether it’s the Prime Minister’s adviser, his MPs, or, now, his father, it feels the sacrifices we are making may be in vain. And it increasingly feels that those in power can choose whether or not to risk our loved ones’ lives for us.
It’s been almost ten years since anyone from my family was buried in that graveyard. And I can only hope that they hold out a little bit longer, until we are together again. Across the world, people know they may be giving up final touches and goodbyes in the hope that they will protect their friends and save their families. If only Mr Johnson could remember this fact – or deign to care enough to do the same.