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Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures

Preparations for and Disposal of the Dead in Late Antiquity

Part 2 of 5, in the series: Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures | Dr. Jeremiah Mutie, Ph.D | Southern California Seminary

Previously, Dr. Mutie explained that people from every culture, religious affiliation, and race has struggled to understand the mystery of death. One way that people attempted to cope with death was in the burial rituals, of which Dr. Mutie provided detailed descriptions. Here is one example:

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.

The similarity of the practices from ancient times to our own times is fascinating.
2.2. Preparations for and Disposal of the Dead in Late Antiquity
            A significant amount of scholarly discussion has emerged pertaining to the practices related to the disposal of the dead in antiquity. Before exploring these rituals and practices in detail, however, a word is in order concerning the progression of events from the time of death to that of the disposal of the body.
2.2.1. The Greeks and their Dead
As it has already been pointed out, as far as the Greeks were concerned, preparations for the disposal of the dead began as soon as death became imminent. Indeed, in Platonism (and later, Orphism), there was the belief that the soul was actually imprisoned in the body. As such, a popular expression of this was the Greek phrase— σῶμα σῆμα—“the body is the tomb.”[1] The soul, therefore, was believed to be eagerly awaiting its release from the body—its prison—to go back to where it originally come from. This “release” was, in earlier stages of the development of Greek thought, believed to be easy, painless and effortless. However, with time, it began to be conceived as a difficult process. Thus, “Starting from Plato in the fourth century, the struggle of the psychê to be released from the body starts to be noted.”[2] This struggle is a phenomenon that was known as psychorrhagêma. As Garland explains, it is because of this perceived struggle of the release of the soul from the body that led to later innovations such as the “placing of on obol [coin] between the teeth of the deceased as payment to Charon for being ferried across the Styx.”[3] And, just as with the dying Romans, upon the person’s demise, in a process called prothesis, “the eyes and mouth [of the deceased] were first closed, a practice known to Homer which was most appropriately discharged by the next-of-kin.”[4] Garland adds that “An inscription found at Smyrna possibly to be dated to the third century B.C. suggests that the closing of the eyes was believed to secure the release of the psychê from the body.”[5]
When it came to the actual disposal of the dead, a number of steps were followed. First, there was the washing of the corpse to prepare it for burial. Garland notes that this washing was performed by the women of the family, although, sometimes, “persons who knew that their death was imminent may have performed this duty for themselves.”[6] When available, sea-water was preferred. Just like a similar ceremony whereby a bride washed herself before the marriage ceremony, this practice “should perhaps be interpreted as denoting a barrier to be passed through in undergoing a rite of passage.”[7] This was followed by the laying out of the body in a bed (klinê) with one or more pillows being placed beneath the head. The klinê was then draped “in a bier-cloth (strôma).”[8] In addition, the body itself was clothed in a funeral garment, which differed according to the category of the person. “For instance,” writes Garland, “the unmarried or recently married dead were laid out in wedding attire, and soldiers, particularly in the Geometric period, were buried in hoplite panoply.”[9] And, although the color of white was mostly preferred, other colors were used as well. Finally, the practice was also accompanied by the placing of some objects, such as tree branches, under the bier or on the head of the deceased. Additionally, “it was also a widespread custom in antiquity to place a crown on the head of the deceased.”[10] Although there was not a specific set time within which prothesis was to be completed, its purpose was clear: it “was to enable the mourners to sing a funeral dirge in honor of the dead in order to satisfy the claims of duty and to appease the soul of the departed.”[11] When all of these actions were completed, it was time to proceed to the next ritual in the process of disposing the dead among the Greeks.
This was followed by what was known as the ekphora, which was “the conveyance of the body to its place of interment.”[12] This was the “funerary procession.” The corpse was now “transported to the grave by a horse-drawn hearse.”[13] From the available evidence, the Greek practice of ekphora, may be summarized as follows:
Concerning the ekphora, there seems to have been an elaborate wheeled hearse. Whether this cart that carried the vase with the body was always pulled by horses or not remains a matter of scholarly debate. What is clear is that the cortège was led by a woman, had other women walking beside it, and was followed by a man “carrying no weapons who appears to be holding a conversation with the corpse,” perhaps “reproaching him [the dead] for having abandoned his relatives.”  Either with the use of family members as the pallbearers [known as klimakophoroi, makrophoroi or nekrothaptai] or using hired ones, the bier was escorted with music to the place of disposition.[14]
And, as Garland explains, the pall-bearers would usually be youth, or, “if the dead belonged to a coterie, his colleagues would normally provide the convoy. Finally, “Hired musicians accompanied the body to the grave playing what is obscurely referred to as Carian music.”[15] The conclusion of the ekphora gave way to the disposal phase of the body.
The Greeks practiced both cremation and inhumation when it came to the disposal of their dead, with “the popularity of one method or the other [being] varied over place and time.”[16] Concerning these variations, D. Felton observes, “archeological evidence indicates that throughout Greece, and Mycenae, in particular, inhumation prevailed from ca. 1650 to ca. 1200 B.C.”[17] As it will be demonstrated here below, however, Christians emphasized inhumation as the preferred method of the disposal of the dead for various theological reasons.
The burial send-off rites were the same the method of the disposal of the dead notwithstanding. Burkert explains that these included, first, sacrifices that usually comprised of presentation of gifts to the deceased “as possession befitting his station in life.”[18] “Earthen vessels,” writes Burkert, “some containing food and drink, represent the minimal requirement, though the symbolic function of the gift means that the miniature vessels of no practical use may be substituted.”[19]  Second, there would be what was known as “destructive sacrifices,” which were “motivated by the helpless rage which accompanies grief.”[20]  Weapons and tools are broken. In some cases, “dogs and horses, and even the servants and the wife of the dead man may be killed.”[21] Garland further summarizes:
Increasing evidence is coming to light which demonstrates that in exceptional circumstances ritual slaughter took place at the graveside from the Protogeometric though the Classical period. Homer’s description of the funeral of Patroklos as performed by Achilles refers to the slaughter of twelve Trojan youths, two dogs and four horses, sacrificed upon the dead man’s pyre.[22]
Although for a long period of time, this Homeric description remained uncorroborated, it is helpful to note that this is no longer the case. Indeed, “Homer’s descriptions have been independently confirmed by a recent excavation done jointly by the Greek Archeological Service and the British School of Athens at Lefkandi.”[23]
Finally, the burial ceremony of the Greeks was also accompanied by a significant amount of feasting and celebration. Burkert simply writes, “no burial was without a funerary banquet which again presupposes animal sacrifices.”[24]This banquet, known as the perideipnon, “was not held at the graveside. Instead, it was held at the home of the family of the deceased.”[25]  As Homer reports, for example, concerning the presumed burial of the son of Aeacus:

he made a funeral feast to satisfy their hearts. Many sleek bulls [πολλοὶ μὲν βόες ἀργοί] bellowed about the knife, as they were slaughtered, many sheep and bleating goats, and many white-tusked swine, rich with fat, were stretched to singe over the flame of Hephaestus; and everywhere about the copse the blood ran so that one might dip cups therein.[26]

The logic behind throwing such a feast was the belief that “the deceased was now at a banquet of his own.”[27] As the funeral concluded, there would be the assignment of new roles to the living as well as “the marking of the grave with a stone sign, sema.”[28] This sign was believed to serve as the proclamation of the dead to all eternity. As Burkert observes, the continued honoring of the dead involved “general celebrations with which the city honors [sic] its dead every year: days of the dead, nekysia, or days of the forefathers, genesia.”[29] “On such days,” he continues, “the graves are adorned, offerings are made, special food is eaten, and it is said that the dead come up and go about in the city.”[30] Whether this constituted a full-blown “cult of the dead” continues to be an issue of scholarly debate.
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[1] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 3.
[2] Ibid., 166.
[3] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 23. It should be noted that this practice is very much similar to a later similar practice in Valentinian Gnosticism’s ritual of apolytrosis “whereby the dying is taught incantations to help him go through the various archons on his way back to Demiurge. The purpose seems to make sure that the departed do not necessarily come back!,” (Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 166 n. 38. For a full discussion of this concept, see Nicola Denzey Lewis. “Apolytrosis as Ritual and Sacrament: Determining a Ritual Context for Death in Second-Century Marcosian Valentinianism.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17 (2009): 525–61.
[4] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 23.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 24.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 25.
[10] Ibid., 26.
[11] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 167. Garland adds that “The importance of the ritual lament seems in fact to have rivalled, if not to have equalled [sic], that of the burial itself, as frequent passages in literature where the two actions are combined indicate. A study of surviving dirges suggests that they primarily afforded the bereaved an opportunity to indulge in shameless self-pity by bemoaning the effects upon their lives occasioned by the loss of the beloved,” (Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 30).
[12] Ibid., 166.
[13] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 31.
[14] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 167
[15] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 34.
[16] D. Felton, “The Dead.” In A Companion to Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 87.
[17] Ibid
[18] Burkert, Greek Religion, 192.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid., 193.
[22] Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 35.
[23] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 168.
[24] Burkert, Greek Religion, 193.
[25] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 168.
[26] Homer, Ill. 2.26–34.
[27] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 168.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Burkert, Greek Religion, 194.
[30] Ibid.

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