King Priam mourns his dead son in the Trojan War.
King Priam mourns his dead son in the Trojan War.

Life in ancient Greece was a rich interaction between people and a pantheon of gods with human characteristics and extraordinary beauty and abilities. The gods required regular rituals and offerings of food, drink and other valuables to encourage them to bestow their favor and withhold their wrath. Ritualized funeral and burial practices likewise honored the dead, ensured their immortality and protected the living from divine punishment or social condemnation.

Mythology and Literature

Much of what we know about Greek religious beliefs surrounding death and burial comes from surviving narratives about the fantastic interventions of the gods, and from stories. Two great classics of Greek antiquity, Homer's epic poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," relate incidents of dealings with the gods of Hades, the underworld, and of the mandate to prepare and bury a body properly. Gods and goddesses associated with death and the underworld had their assigned roles and rules. They could be vengeful and punitive when they were ignored or when mortals failed to observe proper burial rituals. Hades was a powerful figure, lord of his eponymous realm and the brother of Zeus, father of the gods who lived on Mount Olympus, and of Poseidon, lord of the sea. Persephone lived the winter half of the year with Hades in the underworld and returned to earth each spring. Thanatos, the god of gentle death, was associated with sleep.

Hades: Heaven or Hell

The ancient Greeks believed that when a person dies her vital breath, or psyche, leaves the body and enters the underworld. The psyche became a phantom, pale and barely visible but not reachable, in a murky shadowy place in Hades' kingdom. Eventually, the Greeks began to view the psyche as a soul, having a personality and the ability to make moral choices. Those choices could elevate you to blissful heights after death or condemn you to unending gloom or relentless punishment. The three levels of the underworld were the Elysium Fields, sunny, flower-filled meadows for the virtuous and those favored by the gods; the Plains of Asphodel, a twilight world that stretched on forever where ghostly psyches survived on grey asphodel blossoms; and Tartarus, the deepest level of hell for those who had committed terrible crimes and been forsaken by the gods. These beliefs in the nature of life after death inspired a number of widely-practiced funeral and burial customs.

Charon's Obol

A well-known Greek myth associated with burials and the afterlife may be just a story, not tied to any religious practice. The myth is that the dead must enter Hades by crossing the River Styx by ferry. The ferryman, a grim figure sometimes used to symbolize death, is named Charon and he demands a coin for passage. Once across the Styx, the soul passes through a gate guarded by Cerberus, a three-headed dog positioned there to keep the inhabitants of Hades from leaving. Archaeological evidence -- coins in the mouths or hands of skeletal remains -- is very inconclusive. The grave coins, called obols, show up at a different historical time than the story in the ancient literature and are not found at all sites. Researchers consider that the practice, even if it does signify a connection with the Charon/Styx myth, may not be related to religious belief.

The Lamentations of Antigone

The Greeks believed that the shades of their dead could hear their lamentations and that the soul of an unburied body would never find peace. The principle activity of mourners in ancient Greece was a ritual and histrionic lamentation. Wailing and tearing at hair, either at the wake or the grave site, was mainly a role for women, although not limited to them. Homer describes how Achilles flung dust over himself, fell to the ground, tore at his hair and violently mourned the death of his friend Patroklos, in "The Iliad." The case of Antigone, protagonist of Sophocles' famous tragedy, illustrates the plight of a woman who is forbidden to bury her brother, Polyneices, fallen in battle for control of Thebes. When Creon, the new King of Thebes, declares that no one is allowed to mourn or bury Polyneices under pain of death, Antigone performs the death rituals for her brother even though it means she will be killed.

Disposition of the Remains

Tradition that survived for centuries dictated how a corpse was prepared for burial. Close female relatives washed and anointed the body and wrapped it in a shroud. The body rested on a funeral bier in the house, surrounded by wreaths of laurel and myrtle to evoke love and immortality. This tableau symbolized the sleep of the dead, who continued to exist in Hades as they had in life. Exacting preparations of the body ensured the best possible life in the underworld. The wake, called the prothesis, featured ritual lamentations. After the wake, a procession, the ekphora, conveyed the deceased to the cemetery outside the city walls for burial. Greek law required the ekphora and the burial to conclude before sunrise so the city would not be disturbed by the funeral. Bodies could be cremated or buried intact; cremains were collected in an amphora for interment in the grave. Birthdays and death days, observed at the grave site with celebratory meals and offerings of food and drink, acknowledged the underworld existence of the departed soul.