Ancient Roman Burial Customs

The Romans attached great importance to the burial of the dead. They believed that the soul could only find rest when the body had been placed in the grave; until this was accomplished the soul would haunt the home, and bring unhappiness to others. Thus, to perform funeral services was a solemn religious duty for the surviving members of the deceased’s family.  Iusta facere, the Latin expression for the rites, explained that the ceremony was looked on as the right of the deceased. If any Roman citizen came upon an unburied body of a Roman citizen, they were to scatter three handfuls of dust over the body. This amount of dust was sufficient for a ceremonial burial and the happiness of the troubled soul, if for any reason the body could not be immediately buried.

Burial was the required way of disposing of the dead in early Rome. Even after cremation became popular, it was necessary that some small part of the body, usually the bone of a finger, be buried in the earth. Cremation was practiced for health reasons however it was very expensive and the poorer classes did not have the money to use crematoriums. Often the very rich preferred burial as well for fear that their bones would be discovered and dishonored. Children less than forty days old were always buried, and so were slaves whose funeral expenses were always paid by their masters. After Christianity was introduced, cremation was seldom used partly because burning became the chief alternative to burial.

The Twelve Tables of Rome forbid the burial and burning of the dead within the walls of the city. For the poor, places of burial were provided in localities outside the walls, and similar to the potter’s fields of modern cities. The rich hid their grave sites with the hope that their burial place would not be discovered and desecrated. Potter’s fields were simply open pits twelve feet square, without any lining of any kind. The bodies were thrown in the pit and the stench and the diseases were overwhelming to the farmer’s who lived near the burial sites.

Collected by Tyler Reardon, Dramaturge

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