Shrines mark tragedy on Greece's deadly roads

Shrines mark tragedy on Greece's deadly roads

On a long, straight stretch of rural road in southern Greece, a little reminder of death stands among the long grass.

Flanked by plastic flowers and illuminated after sunset by solar-powered lights, such miniature shrines are a common sight in a country that has one of the European Union's worst road fatality rates.

It was here, near the village of Efyra in the western Peloponnese, that 19-year-old Nikos Staikopoulos lost control of his speeding car, crashed and died on Oct. 18, 2009. Days earlier, he had completed his military service — a mandatory rite of passage into adulthood for all male Greeks.

His parents buried him in their nearby village, but also had a shoebox-sized concrete chapel, standing on a low concrete pillar, erected where he died.

Made of iron sheeting, stone, wood, concrete or marble, tens of thousands of such shrines punctuate Greece's roadside scenery, usually on tricky bends or cliffside stretches — even in central Athens. In a few cases, they are offerings of thanks from motorists who escaped alive from a bad crash. Most contain religious pictures, perhaps a picture of the deceased and an oil-fuelled lamp.

"A cemetery is seen as the place where (the deceased) lives on after death, but the place of their death is also a point of metaphysical reference and the shrine serves for remembrance," folklorist Dimitris Benekos said.

Benekos, a former associate professor of popular culture and education at the University of Thessaly, said the custom may have its origins in the small countryside shrines, built on the outskirts of villages, that housed the icon of a saint who was believed to protect the area.

According to police data, 804 people died in road accidents in Greece last year and more than 13,000 were injured, placing a severe burden on the cash-strapped country's public health and welfare systems.

It's the sixth-worst road fatality rate in the 28-member European Union, according to the Eurostat statistical agency.

Photos by Petros Giannakouris

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