Greek Mythology and Burying the Dead
In ancient Greek culture, funerals involved dressing the body, placing a coin on the lips, lamenting the dead, a funeral procession, and burial or cremation. Those that did not receive a proper burial could not pay the fare to enter the underworld and were doomed to wander the shore of the Acheron River. Most Greek burial myths concern the sanctity of burial and the punishment for those who interfered with the custom.
1 Achilles' Grief
Achilles and Patroclus grew up together and were as close as brothers. But when the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen, the wife of King Menelaus, Achilles and Patroclus were obliged to join the Greek army in the Trojan War to reclaim Helen. To prepare for a fight against Paris' brother Hector, Patroclus donned the magical armor of Achilles. In their fight, Hector killed Patroclus and stripped off the armor. Achilles vowed he would bury Patroclus only after he killed Hector. Achilles did, however, allow the women in his contingent to cleanse Patroclus's body and mourn him. Only after Achilles killed Hector did the shade of Patroclus visit Achilles in his sleep, begging him for a proper funeral. Achilles acquiesced, cremating his friend and collecting his remains in a golden urn.
2 The Desecration of Hector
After avenging Patroclus, Achilles strapped Hector's body to his chariot and dragged it all the way back to the Greek base. He continued to desecrate Hector's body for 12 days, though the gods protected the body from lasting damage or decay. Eventually, Achilles's mother Thetis appeared, convincing Achilles that even his gravest enemy deserved respect in death and a proper burial. Achilles relented and agreed to give the body to Hector's father, King Priam, who honored his son with a proper burial.
3 A Sister's Grief
After their father King Oedipus blinded and outcast himself, Eteocles and Polyneices agreed to take turns ruling Thebes. But when Eteocles refused to allow his brother to rule, Polyneices and his supporters attacked. Both brothers died in the ensuing battle, but Creon, their uncle, refused to give Polyneices a proper burial. Instead, he left the body outside the city gates to rot. Horrified at the thought of her brother's shade knowing no peace in the afterlife, Antigone revolted against Creon's orders. She covered her brother's body with a thin layer of soil, and when Creon's guards removed the covering, she buried him once more. Creon buried Antigone alive for her "crime." By the time the prophet Teiresias convinced Creon to save his niece, both Antigone and Haemon, Creon's son, had killed themselves.
4 Sisyphus Cheats Death
The Corinthian King Sisyphus, infamous for his cunning and selfishness, trapped the death god Thanatos, temporarily rendering all humans immortal. Angry, the war god Ares freed Thanatos and the two gods demanded that Sisyphus be the first to die. However, Sisyphus convinced his wife not to give him a proper burial. He could not pay the toll to enter the underworld and he complained about his wife's lack of decorum to Persephone, the underworld goddess. Persephone allowed Sisyphus to return to the upper world, and Sisyphus evaded death for several more years. When he passed away again, the trickster god Hermes led him directly to Tartarus, where Sisyphus was forced to push a boulder up a hill for an eternity for tricking the gods of the underworld.
- 1 The Internet Classics Archive: Antigone
- 2 Project Gutenberg: The Iliad of Homer
- 3 The Myth of Sisyphus: Renaissance Theories on Human Perfectibility, Elliot M. Simon
- 4 The Internet Classics Archive: The Aeneid by Virgil
- 5 The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece