Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures

By Dr. Jeremiah Mutie, PhD | A Five Part Series on Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures

  1. Introduction

Death is one of the most intriguing aspects of life. Since the beginning of mankind, death has wrapped itself in all kinds of deep mysteries because of this simple fact: dead people do not come back to tell the living something about death. No wonder, one of the most famous saying about death reflects this understanding; “dead men tell no tales.” Essentially, therefore, there seems to be no sure way of knowing what it is like to be “on the other side.” This attitude, that is, the feeling of hopelessness and lack of understanding when it comes to the mysterious nature of death, cuts throughout all peoples, cultures and time. Reflecting this attitude, for example, in the ancient Near Eastern cultures, Illman and Ringren write; “the attitude toward death vacillates between pessimism and optimism. Generations pass away…. They build buildings, their places are no more…. No one returns from over (there).”[1] And neither does the passage of time bring us any closer to a better understanding of this grandest of all mysteries.
The reader need not be reminded that throughout history, people from virtually all cultures, religious affiliations and races have struggled to get a handle of this mystery. The futility and frustration of this exercise comes across as one reads the not so graceful exchange between Zorba the Greek and the Scholar in Socrates where “the only thing that is clear about death is that we cannot be clear about it.”[2] Listen to this exchange between these two: “Zorba the Greek: Why do the young die? Why does anyone die, tell me? Scholar: I don’t know. Zorba the Greek: What’s the use of all your damn books? If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you? Scholar: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”[3] Reflecting on the same frustration that all men experience as they encounter death, Michael Schmaus simply comments, “Death is a universal, above all, a human problem. Only the thoughtless attempt to evade it—unsuccessfully.”[4] And, commenting on the problem of death, S. G. F. Brandon writes as well, “That death has ever been a problem to man is attested as far back as we can trace our species in the archeological record—indeed, it seems to have been a problem even for that immediate precursor of homo sapiens, the so-called Neanderthal Man; for he buried his dead.”[5] Although more writers can be adduced, these would suffice to illustrate the magnitude of the issue.
In light of the foregoing, the purpose of this article is to describe the attitudes towards death in the Greco-Roman and early Christian cultures in the eve of late antiquity. The choice of this time-period is based on the fact that this seems to be the period when most interaction between Greco-Roman culture and Christianity took place. This is because while the new religion was rapidly expanding, cracks had begun to appear in the Empire. Thus, while on the one hand, there were signs of growing optimism towards this age-old problem, on the other hand, pessimism was still dominant. The reader will see this concept clearly as the article develops. As the discussion progresses, the argument will be made to the effect that the interaction between the rapidly-spreading religion of Christianity and the Greco-Roman culture, brought significant and noticeable changes in the attitudes towards death that affected the entirety of the Roman Empire. Although the paper is primarily concerned with describing these changes, occasional comments on the possible reasons behind the changes will be made.
The progress of the paper will reflect the specific attitudes detected as the death process progressed through these key stages: preparation for death (when death became imminent), at the moment of death, the time immediately after death (repose and preparation for disposal), and disposal of the dead as well as post-disposal commemoration. The paper, thus, will follow these key turning points related to death in Greco-Roman and early Christian culture.
2.1. When Death Became Imminent
            Like most of the time periods in antiquity, the time period under consideration here was characterized by high rates of human mortality. Peter G. Bolt explains that during the first and second centuries of the Christian era, with the lack of advanced medical services and with an accompanying litany of ailments, rampant sickness and death were the order of the day. “Without the restraints of modern medicine and modern health measures,” he writes, “illness regularly invaded the fabric of ordinary life in the ancient world, bringing with it the threat of death.”[6] Further describing the dire situations that most people found themselves in when it came to these illnesses, Bolt continues:
Illness brought about incredible suffering. The Hippocratic case studies, for example, speak repeatedly of the distress and misery that accompanied the progress of disease: great pain in various parts of the body, violent and continuous headaches, ulcerated throats and suppurating ears, vomiting and diarrhea, speech disturbances and deafness, paralysis, boils and abscesses, difficulty breathing, convulsions, delirium, rigor, coma, bleeding from various orifices, and so on—and all with no analgesics, antibiotics, or other benefits of modern medicine.[7]
As far as the actual statics are concerned, Bolt adds:
In the forty-two cases in which the length of an illness is specifically mentioned in the Hippocratic case studies, those who died (approximately 60 percent) endured the disease for anywhere between 2 to 120 days, with their suffering lasting an average of 19.4 days; those who survived had to endure the disease anywhere from 3 to 120 days, with an average of 34.8 days of illness.[8]
Thus, with these statistics, it is not an exaggeration to say that people in antiquity lived in the shadow of death. In fact, although physicians provided as much assistance as possible when sickness struck, “part of their role consisted in discerning the signs of the course of the illness that would enable them to predict the answer to this question [that is, whether the sufferer will live or die].”[9] Ultimately, however, no matter how skilled these physicians were in predicting the fate of the sick, they had no power over the menacing death. Thus, it was left to the closest family members to deal with all matters pertaining to the preparation for the death of a loved one.
As far as the Greco-Roman societies are concerned, there were some specific practices related to what the Greeks called the “business of passing from here to there.”[10] Robert Garland notes that there were six discernible features/steps that accompanied the event of death, assuming that death was not sudden. These involved both actions by the dying and those of the living that were set in motion as soon as death became imminent. These can be summarized as follows: (1) the ritual bath of the dying (Alkestis, Socrates and Oedipus), (2) the committal of one’s children to the safe care of others (in the family) (Alkestis and Oedipus), (3) the settling of one’s affairs (Socrates), (4) the prayer to Hestia (Greek goddess) (Alkestis and Ajax), (5) the prayer for safe passage to Hades (Socrates and Ajax), and (6) the farewell to one’s family and friends.[11] When this process was completed, the Greeks believed that the psychê “left the body either through the mouth or through an open wound, at which point the Greeks believed death to have taken place.” Preparations would now begin for the disposal of the body.
On their side, the Romans followed a somewhat similar set of practices when death became imminent. Just as with the Greeks, the families of dying Romans played a significant role in the dying process. As J. M. Toynbee notes, “When death was imminent relations and close friends gathered [a]round the dying person’s bed to comfort and support him or her and to give vent to their own grief.”[12] While the Romans do not seem to have had a multi-faceted steps of practices for the dead to perform before dying, they, like the Greeks, believed that death occurred when the soul (psychê) left the body, after which additional death rituals were performed. There was no discussion concerning the opening by which the soul left the body. However, the Romans had a practice whereby “The nearest relative present gave the last kiss, to catch the soul, which, so it was believed, left the body with the final breath.”[13] Additionally, for the Romans, the same relative who caught the last kiss, would also close the eyes of the departed. After this, “all the near relatives called upon the dead by name (conclamare) and lamented him or her, a process that continued at intervals until the body was disposed of by cremation or inhumation.”[14] Other rituals included the taking the body from the bed in order to set it on the ground (deponere), washing and anointing the body in preparation for disposal.[15] Then, the corpse would be dressed “in toga, in the case of a Roman citizen, the laying of a wreath on its head, particularly in the case of a person who had earned one in life, and the placing of a coin in the mouth to pay the deceased’s fare in Charon’s barque.”[16] With the clothing, the placing of the wreath as well as the placing of the coin in the corpse’s mouth, the body was now ready for either lying-in-state (collocare= πρότιθέναι) for the great on a grand bed (lectus funebris) with the feet facing the house door or the disposal of the body for everyone else.”[17]
Finally, Christians also practiced a number of last rites on their dying relatives and friends. However, because of their understanding of death as the soul’s departure and return to Paradise to await the resurrection at the end of time. This is in conformity with the truth taught in the New Testament. In a great summary of how events developed as death became imminent for early Christians, Lyman Coleman writes:
The greatest attention was bestowed by the early Christians upon the dying, and the highest respect entertained for their final counsels, instructions and prayers. Their [the dying] exhortations to surviving friends, and their prayers in their behalf, were treasured up with pious care. Their will in regard to the disposal of their effects, and the appropriation of them for objects of charity and benevolence, were religiously observed. The sign of the cross was administered to them. The bishop and the several orders of the clergy, as well as relatives and friends, sought to offer them consolation. Prayers were offered in the church for them. Friends pressed around them to give, and receive parting kiss, and the last embrace. To such as were restored to Christian fellowship in their dying moments, the sacrament was administered. This was afterwards united with the ceremony of extreme unction.[18]
Thus, in ways similar to the Greco-Roman ritual practices towards the dying, these Christian rites indicate care and concern for their dying as well. However, “in contrast to them [the Greeks and the Romans], the [Christian] concern is governed more by hope than hopeless despair.”[19] This idea will become clear as the practice of disposing the dead amongst these cultures is assessed.
Additionally, Christians also practiced the ritual of the closing of the eyes of the deceased immediately after death. This was done by the closest relatives of the deceased. Based on their belief in resurrection and afterlife, the closing of the eyes was “an emblem of peaceful slumber of the deceased from which he was expected to awake at the resurrection of the just.”[20] And, to be clear, when early Christians used the metaphor of sleep (mostly in its infinitival form, “to sleep”— κοιμᾶσθαι) for death, they did not mean an unconscious existence of the soul of the dead between death and resurrection (soul-sleep). This is the way that the term has come to be used in some Christian circles lately, an understanding that is anachronistically read back to early Christianity.[21] Rather, it was used metaphorically to refer to the peaceful rest that the dead in Christ experience as they await their resurrection at the eschaton.[22] Indeed, this understanding is consistent with the later Christian phrase; “Requiescit in Pace—R.I.P [“she rests in peace”], a phrase that later became predominant on Christian tombstones.”[23] Therefore, the emphasis of the term “sleep” is it relates to the death of the believer, is theological and not biological.
[1] K –J Illman, “מוּת” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Riggren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 187–88.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Love is Stronger than Death (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), xv.
[3] Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, trans. Carl Wildman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952), quoted in Peter Kreeft, Love is Stronger than Death, xvi.
[4] Michael Schmaus, “Death as Fulfillment,” Continuum 5, no. 3 (1967): 483.
[5] S. G. F. Brandon, “The Origin of Death in Some Ancient Near Eastern Religions,” Religious Studies 1, no. 2 (April, 1966), 217.
[6] Peter G. Bolt, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the Greco-Roman World,” in Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 56.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid. See Hippocrates, Prognostics, 1, 20, 24 and 25.
[10] Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 13. It is important to note that, after a long period of interaction, by 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the Greeks and the Romans had merged their cultures into what is known as the “Greco-Roman culture.” For a thorough discussion of the development of the Greek views of death, see Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 195–215.
[11] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 13, quoted in Jeremiah Mutie, Death in Second-Century Christian Thought: The Meaning of Death in Earliest Christianity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 165.
[12] J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), 43.
[13] Ibid., 43–44.
[14] Ibid., 44.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Lyman Coleman, The Antiquities of the Christian Church (New York: Gould, Newman & Saxton, 1841), 411, quoted in Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 172. Praxton argues that Christian followed the Roman ritual of separation of the dead from the living known as ordo defunctorum, which included the following steps: “1. As soon as they see him approaching death he is to be given communion even if he has eaten that day, because the communion will be his defender and advocate at the resurrection of the just. It will resuscitate him. After the reception of the communion, the Gospel accounts of the passion of the Lord are to be read to the sick person by priests or deacons until his soul departs from the body. 2. Immediately after the soul has left the body, the response Subvenite sancti dei is said, followed by the verse Suscipiat te Christus and a psalm (In exitu Israel [113] or Dilexi quonium [114]) with the antiphon Chorus angelorum. 3. Afterword the body is washed and they place it on a bier. After it has been placed on the bier and before it is taken from the house, the priest says the antiphon De terra formasti me and a psalm (Dominus regit me [22], Gaudete iusti [32], or Dominus regnavit [92]). 4. The body is carried to the church and placed therein to the accompaniment of psalms and antiphons (e.g., the antiphon Tu iussisti nasci me domine and Psalm 41, Quemadmodum). 5. And when it has been placed in the church everyone should pray for its soul without intermission until the body has been buried. They should chant psalms, responses, and lessons from the book of Job. The vigil should be celebrated for him at the proper hour, but without Alleluia. 6. When the body is placed in the tomb they sing the antiphon Aperite mihi portas iustitiae and the psalm Confitemini [117]” (S. Praxton, Christianizing Death: The Creation of a Ritual Process in Early Medieval Europe (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 39, quoted in Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 172–73, n. 68.
[19] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 172.
[20] Coleman, The Antiquities, 411.
[21] See, for example, Oscar Cullman, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament (New York: The Macmillan, 1958).
[22] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 173.  As Robert Edson Bailey concludes, “The state of the dead…is not a sort of ‘soul-sleep.’ Rather, the term is an [sic] euphemism for death—a euphemism which indicates the manner of dying to some extent (as in e.g., Acts 7:60) and also the meaning of the death for the Christian. The Christian stands under the promise of the resurrection and death has for him lost its power, its sting. Those who die in Christ (I Thess 4:16) have the terror of death behind them—they are at rest (Rev 14:13). Because the dead are in Christ they may be said to be “asleep”, though outwardly death retains its character as the enemy. Because Christ is risen, the dead in Christ do not perish in death (I Cor 15:17ff.) The eschatological factor is Christ” (Robert Edson Bailey, “Is Sleep the Proper Biblical Term for the Intermediate State,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 55 (1964): 164. See also Ogle, Marbury B. “The Sleep of Death,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 11 (1933): 81–119 and Gavin, F. “The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syrian Church,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 40 (1920): 103–20.
[23] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 173. See also Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal. Sociological Studies in Roman History, vol. 2. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 232.

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