The Pontics are a group of ethnic Greeks who prospered on the shores of the Black Sea between the years of 1914 and 1923. Over 350,000 of their population perished at the hands of the Ottomans, Kemalists and neo-Turks during the Greek Genocide, and those who remained were forced to leave their homeland to seek refuge in Greece. But even today, this small community manages to keep its age old traditions alive. One of their most notable customs is the yearly ‘Picnic with the Dead’.
Every year on the Sunday after Easter, also known as St. Thomas Sunday, several Pontic Greek families in the village of Rizana make their way to the local cemetery to picnic on the graves of the deceased. Many of them bring along folding tables and chairs, table cloths, traditional meals, vodka, flowers, and candles to set in the midst of the marble gravestones. No one is allowed to cry as the day is seen not as one of mourning, but of celebration in honor of the departed. Family members are seen smiling and greeting each other, “Christos anesti” (Christ has risen), while children laugh and play amidst the graves.
Photo: VICE Greece
The tradition is believed to go back as far as the Homeric epics, but it has been kept alive to this day by the Pontic Greeks. “Thousands of Greeks left Pontos and the former Soviet countries in the early 1900s,” explained Stefanos Oflidis, president of the Association of Repatriated Pontics. “Most of us are ordinary people, but honoring our ancestors is very important to us.
Oflidis, who works as a dental technician in the nearby city of Thessaloniki, explained how to the present cemetery used by the Pontic Greeks for the Picnic with the Dead came to be. “We settled in western Thessaloniki, and in the following years, our dead were buried either in Evosmo or in neighboring municipal cemeteries,” he said. “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.”
Photo: VICE Greece
Soon after, his father Alexandros began to look for a new cemetery space, and this became the number one priority for the newly formed Association of Repatriated Pontics. A villager in Rizana, Lefteris Tepetidis, finally agreed to donate 15 acres of his own property to the cause, in memory of his son who died young. In the following years, the Pontics buried their dead, built a church, and tended to the cemetery.
In recent years, Oflidis admits that the participation in the ritual has been dwindling. “There aren’t as many relatives coming on a day like this as there used to,” he said. “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.”