Ancient Greek Burial Traditions & Practices

The Greeks placed a coin on or near the deceased's mouth.
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Ancient Greek burial practices were highly regulated and the Greek funerary ritual consisted of three parts: the prothesis, the ekphora and the perideipnon. The funeral allowed for the surviving relatives to show the depth of their familial pride and the strength of their kinship ties. It also provided an opportunity for families to display their wealth and prove their status by staging elaborate funerals and mourning in a public fashion. Ultimately, the ancient Greek funeral can reveal much about the Greeks' attitudes towards things like the importance of family and the nature of the afterlife.

1 The Prothesis

The prothesis refers to the laying out and display of the body. First, the deceased's closest relative closed the eyes and mouth, sometimes placing a coin either between the teeth or on the mouth as payment for Charon to take him across the River Styx. Next, the body was washed, usually by female relatives. It was then dressed in the type of clothing that befitted the deceased's status in life. For example, if a person was recently married, he or she wore wedding attire in death. If the deceased was a soldier, he was buried in his armor. After the body was properly dressed, it was placed on a bed and displayed so that loved ones could come and pay their final respects.

2 Formal Mourning

The formal mourning period thus began during the prothesis. In general, there was a distinction between the way men and women mourned. Men typically did not show emotion and behaved in a formal and detached manner. In artistic representations of the prothesis, the male head of the family often waited to greet guests some distance from the body.

The female relatives, in contrast, stood near the body, wailing and gesturing wildly, including pulling at their hair. The chief mourner was the mother or the wife of the deceased. She stood near the head and often held it in her hands in grief.

3 The Ekphora

Following the prothesis, the body was then transferred to the place of interment in a funerary procession called the ekphora. The procession took place at night and included multiple stops at intersections so that the mourners could attract a large amount of public attention (and therefore honor for the deceased). Initially, these mourners were family members but later they were replaced by professional mourners and performers, including musicians and singers.

Once at the grave, both inhumation and cremation were practiced with varying levels of popularity, depending on the time period and the geographic location. Unfortunately, very little is known about the actual interment, as it is rarely represented in art or literature of the ancient period.

4 The Perideipnon and Beyond

The interment was followed by a funerary banquet called the perideipnon. Typically performed in the home of the deceased, the perideipnon was similar to any other banquet except for the fact that it was held in honor of the dead. Unlike later Roman tradition, the Greeks did not imagine the dead partaking in the feast either with them or in the afterlife; rather, the feast was meant simply as commemoration.

After the funeral, offerings were made at the tomb on the third, ninth and 30th days after death, on the one-year anniversary and during certain universal festivals. As with the funeral, the type and structure of these offerings were highly regulated. Offerings included the sacrifice of animals, the donation of food and valuables and a reprise of mourning by female family members.

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.