The Importance of Funeral Rites in Ancient Greece

Carved urns depict ancient Grecian funeral rites.
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To the ancient Greeks, death was the gateway to the afterlife, and a funeral was an essential rite of passage to help the traveler on his or her way. Remembrance of the dead ensured their immortality, and was deemed so important that childless people adopted heirs to take care of their funeral arrangements. The primary sources of information on Grecian rites are archaeological and literary -- the customs are depicted on urns, vases and carvings, and described in plays and poetry as well as in philosophical and legal treatises.

1 Funeral Rites

The rites proceeded in three stages: laying-out (“prothesus”), funeral procession (“ekphora”) and burial. Laying-out was women's work. They washed, anointed and clothed the body, adding armor for a soldier or jewelry for a noblewoman. The corpse lay with feet to the door and a coin under the tongue to pay for passage to the underworld. Family and friends came to mourn, often hiring a musician to lead the lamentation. Before dawn the funeral procession began. Men went first, with the body on a cart; women followed, lamenting and tearing their hair. At the burial site, the body or its ashes were put in a pit with offerings of food or gifts, and sometimes a sacrifice. The men stayed to erect a painted or inscribed monument or tombstone (“stela”), while the women went home to prepare a funeral feast. On the third, ninth and 30th days after internment, family members visited the grave to leave garlands or cakes.

2 Lamentation

Lamentation fulfilled a social need to both express and contain grief. It was an essential element in religious rites, for example, at annual festivals in honor of dead or deified heroes. According to Lada Stevanović, lamentation channeled grief into a controllable form and set limits: a time for grieving, a time for moving on. It proclaimed the virtue or glory of the deceased, and the grief of those left behind. In the 6th century B.C., the ruler Solon formalized the practice to minimize civic disruption and feuding by restricting the number of mourners and setting time limits.

3 Religious Significance

The Greeks saw burial as a rite of passage and part of the eternal cycle of life. They treated dead heroes as gods, and venerated their tombs and remains with annual festivals. They believed the gods insisted on proper funerals and would be offended by anything less. Charon, ferryman of the dead, only accepted those buried or cremated with formal rites, and demanded the customary toll for ferrying them across the Styx. Those turned away were denied peace and doomed to wander the banks of the Styx for 100 years.

4 Social Significance

Tombs were evidence of status and lineage. A full elaborate funeral was a mark of honor and was reserved for heroes and for women dying in childbirth -- those who protected and continued the community. However, excessive pomp and ostentation were banned, and it was forbidden to exploit a funeral for political purposes. Under Solon it became a crime to speak ill of the dead, tell lies about them or fail to perform funeral rites. However, the authorities had the power to deny full funeral rites to outlaws, a form of social and religious ostracism that could cause conflict between the need to obey sacred laws requiring burial and the need for secular laws to keep control of society.