Due to the nature of the archaeological record, we know quite a bit about the funeral rites and burial practices of the ancient Greeks. The customs and mourning rituals are preserved in the art, literature and myth of the period, giving us a great deal of important insight into their world.
The Greeks carefully depicted many aspects of their funerary rites. Bodies were buried in a small wooden box called a larnax, which was typically decorated with depictions of the funeral process. Throughout ancient Greek history, funeral and burial scenes appeared on the walls of many tombs, showing the process and the way it developed over time. Moreover, several ancient cemeteries are relatively well preserved, complete with stone stelae, or slabs, carved with similar scenes. Combined with written and oral stories from the period describing the ways in which bodies were handled, and the archaeological evidence from within the tombs and burial sites, we can piece together the ways in which ancient Greeks dealt with their dead.
Preparing the Body
The first stage of a Greek funeral was prothesus, or the preparation of the body. This could last any number of days, but generally took about 24 hours to complete. Typically, the body would be washed by the women of the household, preferably with seawater if available. Any wounds or injuries would be dressed at this time. The deceased would then be dressed in a full length white shroud, or in military garb if a casualty of battle. If the deceased had been recently married, she might be dressed in her wedding garb. For most, however, the clothing was simple and any accessories were minimal. The hair would be worn as it had been in life, and jewelry was kept basic. For some wealthier families, a diadem or crown of greenery might have been placed on the head of the corpse. The rich and powerful often broke with the tradition of simplicity and adorned the body with gold breastplates, masks and helmets. Regardless of social stature, the body would be laid out with its feet facing the door. The eyes and mouth would be closed, with the jaw secured by a leather strap if necessary. A coin would be placed in the mouth, as payment for the ferry across the River Styx on the way to the underworld. When these preparations were complete, the body was covered with a funeral shroud. The most important part of prothesus was the ritual lament. The family would sing songs of mourning while preparing the body. When the body had been laid in state, a professional funeral singer would perform threnos, a more formalized lament, in addition to the family's own funeral songs. When this process was complete, the body would be ready for the next phase of the process.
The next stage was called ekphoria, the funeral procession to the place of burial. The deceased was carried by a horse-drawn carriage if the family had one or could afford to hire one, or by pallbearers as a less expensive option. The pallbearers would typically have been members of the family. Along with the body, the mourners would proceed to the cemetery, with the men leading the group and the women and children following behind them. As with the prothesus, during ekphoria the friends and family of the deceased were accompanied by musicians performing songs of mourning as the body made its way. Along with the music, the family continued their own laments, which became particularly loud when passersby drew near. The women in particular would tear their clothing and hair when in view. Public displays of mourning were expected and proper on a societal level. The ancient Greeks practiced both inhumation -- burial within the earth -- and cremation. Regardless of the method, the remains would be gathered in and buried in a larnax, along with offerings of food, wine and flowers. At the conclusion of the burial, the women would return home to prepare a banquet in honor of the deceased. The men in turn would stay behind and erect a stele over the grave.
Visiting the Grave
Veneration of the grave site was very important in ancient Greece. Following the burial, the family would visit the grave and perform various rites on the 3rd, 9th, 13th and 30th days after the burial. On a typical visit, the stele or tomb would be decorated with colorful ribbons or flowers. Offerings of oil, wine and food would be laid out upon the grave or in front of the tomb. Occasionally, libations of honey, water, milk or wine would be poured over the grave itself. Some graves show evidence of animal sacrifices, but these were relatively rare and the reasoning behind the practice is unknown.
- "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome; Peter Toohey
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Death, Burial, and Afterlife in Ancient Greece
- Morbid Outlook: Greek Burial and Lamentation Rituals
- Medioimages/Photodisc/Digital Vision/Getty Images