By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - In a sombre atmosphere in an Athens graveyard, hundreds of Greeks said farewell on Saturday to Dimitris Christoulas, a pensioner who became a symbol of the pain inflicted by austerity when he shot himself in the head outside parliament.
With red roses and carnations in their hands, weeping mourners chanted "Hero!" and "They killed you!" as the 77-year-old's coffin was carried into the cemetery.
The highly public suicide on Wednesday of the retired pharmacist prompted a wave of sympathy in Greece, where many are struggling amid a deep recession.
Garlands, candles and notes of tribute have turned a tree at the spot where he died into an impromptu shrine, in Syntagma Square which has been the epicenter of months of angry protest over Greece's plight.
"I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from the rubbish," he wrote in his suicide note.
At Saturday's ceremony, friends and relatives read poems and letters to honor Christoulas, who wrote that he hoped young people would take up arms and hang "national traitors".
Shouting "Let's take to the streets!" the mourners pledged to fight the wage cuts and tax hikes imposed on ordinary Greeks to keep the debt-burdened country out of bankruptcy.
"Father, you couldn't put up with them killing freedom, democracy, dignity," said Christoulas' 43-year-old daughter Emmy, dressed in black.
"You paid with your sacrifice. Now it's our turn. Father ... We are so many here today because - as the note of a young man(one of many left at his shrine) said - 'We are 11 million and our name is Resistance.'"
The ceremony was followed by a march to his shrine in Syntagma Square.
One mourner said he hoped Christoulas' death would be the start of a "Greek Spring", in the way that the suicide of a Tunisian vegetable seller who set himself on fire in December 2010 triggered the start of the "Arab Spring" protests.
"THEY KILLED YOU!"
Pensioners like Christoulas have been hard hit by Greece's worst economic crisis since World War Two, suffering cuts of 25 percent on average in their old-age benefits over the past two years as well as health spending cuts.
Poverty has increased in Greece since the debt crisis emerged at the end of 2009 and was followed by rounds of austerity in return for the aid that Athens needs from the EU and IMF to stay afloat.
"We say that he committed suicide but we know that he was murdered. We are all potential victims, we are all facing the same fate," said unemployed Angeliki, 55, who was wearing a Greek flag around her neck.
Friends and acquaintances describe Christoulas as a quiet and gentle man, but also a passionate leftist deeply shaken by the pain that the crisis had inflicted on his fellow citizens.
Christoulas was not buried on Saturday. His coffin was carried away at the end of the ceremony and fellow activists said his body would be sent to neighboring Bulgaria for cremation, according to his wishes.
Funeral ceremonies in Greece are usually carried out by an Orthodox priest, but the church opposes cremation and refuses to officiate at burials of people who take their own lives.
(Writing by Ingrid Melander and Renee Maltezou; editing by Andrew Roche)