Aunt Mary joins the Greek gods for eternity

Published Sept. 8, 2014

"Do you prefer a cliff, or water?" asked the owner of the lovely hotel at the foot of Mount Olympus.

It was an important question. A question of life and, more profoundly, death.

Several years earlier an elderly Aunt Mary had asked her niece, my wife, Angela, if, when the time came, we could spread her ashes on Greece's iconic mountain. And now the time had come.

Yes, a cliff would be rather nice.

Several months earlier Aunt Mary, who had enjoyed a successful career in Palo Alto, Calif., real estate, had died at the age of 100. And while a promise is a promise, this was also something more. This was about family. This was about paying tribute to an old woman's cultural heritage. And for Greeks, what better final resting place than the mythological home of the gods?

This was also not going to be easy, for we had two mountains to climb. There was an intimidating mountain range that a 64-year-old man and a 57-year-old woman who'd never attempted climbing anything more challenging than an escalator were about to take on.

But there were also dizzying peaks of bureaucracy — Californian and Greek — that we had to surmount before we could travel halfway around the world and enter a foreign country with the remains of a deceased person in our luggage.

Perhaps we could have simply attempted to avoid all the required paperwork and sneak Aunt Mary into Greece in our luggage. It did have a charming sense of larceny about it. But we also feared traveling halfway around the world with her undocumented ashes only to have them confiscated at the airport. Better to follow the protocols advised by the Greek Consulate in Tampa to prepare all the needed paperwork.

Obviously we needed to provide Aunt Mary's Santa Clara County death certificate, an application for the disposition of human remains, something called a California All-Purpose Acknowledgment and a certification from the funeral home that those really were Aunt Mary's ashes in the box. Then each of those documents required a state of California Apostille, which essentially is a notary validating the previous notaries.

But wait! Everything from California needed to be translated from English to Greek, with more stamps, signatures and official letterheads by the Greek Consulate in Tampa. And then we were off with Aunt Mary in a heavy plastic bag inside an official box weighing about 8 pounds.

As we flew into Thessaloniki, about 80 miles north of Litohoro, every line, every bureaucratic detail in 27 pages of documents was in perfect order. But upon landing, not a single Greek customs official was on hand to review the dossier we had spent more than $500 to prepare. After all the bureaucracy we had gone through in the United States, Angela was almost eager to present the elaborate documents. Alas, nothing.

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Our plan had been to arrive in Litohoro on a Monday afternoon, spend the day exploring the village and set off on Olympus early Tuesday for what we estimated would be a five-hour trek up the mountain.

But that schedule was soon dashed after Sakis Kapsalis, the owner of the Palio Litohoro hotel, informed us that a Tuesday ascent would be impossible because of the forecast for rain. Olympus can be dangerous enough in the best of weather. Several people die every year on its slopes, and days after we made our climb, another hiker fell some 600 feet to his death.

We had to go. Now.

We quickly changed our shoes. And Sakis, a former guide on the mountain, sketched out a map for us to follow. With a couple of bottles of water and Aunt Mary in a backpack, we set out on the Golna route, considered one of the more accessible paths for inexperienced climbers, which began 20 yards from the hotel.

For the next several hours we scrambled ever upward on a narrow, twisting dirt trail over rocks, through dense woods, stopping occasionally to rest and take in the panoramic view of the Aegean Sea below.

At about 5 p.m. we estimated that we were 500 yards from the Golna Olympus summit — a very distant, very steep 500 yards. And we needed to be off the mountain before dusk arrived. We had come thousands of miles horizontally, and another couple of thousand feet vertically. Somehow this place on the mountain seemed right for Aunt Mary. It was lush. It offered a breathtaking view of the Aegean. It was a great piece of real estate. It was time.

Angela pulled the ashes out of the backpack and offered up a Greek Orthodox prayer — in Greek. Aunt Mary wasn't particularly religious, but she was eternally Greek.

Angela quietly spread the ashes over a ridge. A gentle breeze carried Aunt Mary into eternity, into the embrace of the Greek gods. And then it was done. Promise kept. Family honored.

Exhausted and emotionally spent, we headed back down the mountain. Aunt Mary was at long, long last home.