Monday, 4 May 2009

Recycling of Graves - Skiathos Cemetery

I have had this 'souvenir' postcard for many years and never researched it until now. It was purchased during a run ashore on a Greek island by a sailor serving on HMS Barham. The writer, Jim, simply comments: "Some Rest Camp" and dates it 1920.

An entry I found on Google this morning records a strange question by a holiday maker - "Why are there so many opened graves and no remains in the Skiathos cemetery?" The responses are illuminating. Evidently, the graves are rented for three to five years because of lack of space. At the end of this time, the remains are exhumed and either given to the relatives, stacked up in a corner of the cemetery or put in an ossuary. One respondent, perhaps too graphically, suggests three years is the time it takes a body to 'melt' in the ground . . . The custom is, I believe, common on many of the Greek Islands.

In the case of Skiathos cemetery, pictured above, the partially collapsed structure must be classed as an ossuary. As you can see the bones have rolled out into the open. What slightly shocks me is the broken wooden grave marker which must have been dumped there after a grave had been emptied.

HMS Barham was sunk in late 1941 by a German U-boat, having survived being hit by a shell fired by the French battleship Richelieu just over a year earlier. More than 800 sailors were killed when Barham capsized and exploded.

Within a short time of the sinking, the Admiralty realised that the German High Command did not know the ship had been sunk. Realizing an opportunity to mislead the Germans, and to protect British morale, the Admiralty censored all news of Barham’s sinking and the loss of 861 British seamen.

After a delay of several weeks, the War Office decided to notify the next of kin of Barham’s dead, but they added a special request for secrecy. The notification letters included a warning not to discuss the loss of the ship with anyone but close relatives, stating it was "most essential that information of the event which led to the loss of your husband's life should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is announced officially..."

By late January 1942, the German High Command had realized Barham had been lost. The British Admiralty informed the press on 27 January 1942 and explained the rationale for withholding the news.

At a seance in Portsmouth in late November 1941, the spiritualist medium Helen Duncan announced that she had contacted a dead sailor who told her that his ship, HMS Barham, had recently been sunk. Duncan was not arrested in the aftermath of the Barham incident, but in 1944 was arrested during a seance and convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and sentenced to nine months in prison.

According to Wikipedia, film of the sinking has been reused many times in documentaries and in at least one film, Earth vs the Flying Saucers (where it was shown as an American destroyer, in the film Task Force (as a Japanese carrier), and in The Battle of Okinawa film where it stands in for the Japanese Ship Yamato. A short graphic film of its capsize and the resulting explosion can be seen here:


  1. This is all fascinating and rather disturbing in so many ways! The capper is your final paragraph about how the sinking ship footage was used in documentaries and Earth vs The Flying Saucers. Wow. Where did you find the postcard? Thanks for sharing this. Gigi

  2. Thanks Gigi.
    I agree it is both fascinating and disturbing. The medium revealing the sinking was the subject of a television documentary shown recently. I can remember seeing the HMS Barham sinking in Earth vs The Flying Saucers - I have the DVD of the film. Believe it or not, I picked up the postcard at an antiques fair for the equivalent of 50 cents!
    Best wishes

  3. Hi Laurie~ The German U-boat fleet was one of the most effective weapons Germany had during World War II. Their technology--which included the invention and use of the snorkel--enabled U-boats to remain under the surface to recharge their batteries so they could continue their stealth missions which helped create their reputation. Their mistake was the sinking of the passenger ship Luisitania, and the perfection of sonar to detect them them under the sea led to their ultimate demise.

  4. Wow Laurie! and you were worried about finding one fragment of bone - The greek bones are very disturbing. Whats even stranger is that people still bury their dead there, even though they know it is only on a short term rental basis?!