Ancient Greek Burial Customs

b7c02a773e1bfeb56f728235ef877054The Greeks regarded burial as one of their most sacred duties. It was believed that the soul had no rest as long as the body remained unburied. Also, an unburied body was an offence to the eyes of the gods, residing in both the upper and lower worlds. Anyone finding an unburied body was expected to immediately throw a handful of dust/dirt over it.

During a war in which Greeks were fighting, a general who failed to provide a time for the burial of the dead soldiers was guilty of a capital offence. Thus, burial of the dead was not refused by a commander, whether the deceased was Greek., an enemy of the State, or a barbarian. If a body was left unburied it was a violation of the laws of war to refuse burial to the dead soldier.

During the Mycenaean Period, Greeks established strict procedures about burying their dead. The body of the deceased person was prepared to like in state, followed by a procession to the resting place, usually family tomb. Processions and words of sorrow were depicted on the burial chest. Grave goods which included jewelry, weapons, and pottery were arranged around the body on the floor of the tomb. A meal was provided for mourners at the burial site, and food and broken cups were often found at the tomb. The horses of the deceased were often sacrificed at the burial site after they pulled the funeral cart to its final destination. Other family members were also buried in the same site when they died causing the grave goods to be rearranged in the tomb in order to provide space for new inhabitants. Group tombs were very popular until 1100 BCE.

After 1100 BCE, Greeks buried the dead primarily in individual graves. Athens was the major exception as the Athenians usually cremated the dead and placed their ashes in an urn. Grave sites became simpler and grave goods decreased during the Archaic period, while cemeteries became larger. It is interesting that simple ceremonies coincided with the rise of democracy, However, in the fourth century, as democracy declined elaborate tombs and grave sites became popular once again.

h5_54.11.5In Greece, women played a major role in funeral rites. They were in charge of preparing the body, which was washed, anointed, and a wreath was placed on the chest. The mouth was sometimes sealed with a token, which was called “Charon’s obol”. The coin was a payment for the ferryman of the dead to transport the soul from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Additionally, a gold tablet was placed on the lips of the deceased that offered instructions for navigating the afterlife, and giving proper respect to the rulers of the underworld, Hades and Persephone. After the body was prepared, it was laid out for viewing. On the second day. Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood around the body. The wife or mother led the service by chanting verses, pulling out her hair, and hitting herself. This ceremony was called the Prothesis. Before dawn on the third day the body was taken to its final resting place. It was necessary to perform the correct rituals for the dead so that the soul of the departed would be welcomed into the afterlife.

A last Greek tale: Sisyphus was left unburied by his wife on his orders. After his death, Sisyphus visited the Queen of the dead, Persephone and explained he was not buried and needed to return to the world of the living to demand his wife bury him. Persephone granted his request and he returned to the world of the living. However, the gods found out about his trickery and punished him. He was to carry a boulder to the top of a cliff, however the boulder rolled down crushing him, and he had to pick the boulder up and repeat the process over and over again for all eternity and never making any progress. This myth is where one is introduced to the Sisyphusean effort.

Collected by Tyler Reardon, Dramaturge

Related Reads: Death as Myth, Ancient Roman Burial Customs

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