Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices

Ancient Greek funerary practices are attested widely in the literature, the archaeological record, and the art of ancient Greece. Finds associated with burials are an important source for ancient Greek culture, though Greek funerals are not as well documented as those of the ancient Romans.[1]

Gela Painter - Black-Figure "Pinax" (Plaque) - Walters 48225
The lying in state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair, depicted on a terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC

Mycenaean Period

The Mycenaeans practiced a ritual burial of the dead, and did so consistently.[2] The body of the deceased was prepared to lie in state, followed by a procession to the resting place, a single grave or a family tomb. Processions and ritual laments are depicted on burial chests (larnakes) from Tanagra. Grave goods such as jewelry, weapons, and vessels were arranged around the body on the floor of the tomb. Graveside rituals probably included libations and a meal, since food and broken cups are also found at tombs. A tomb at Marathon contained the remains of horses that may have been sacrificed at the site after drawing the funeral cart there. The Mycenaeans seems to have practiced secondary burial, when the deceased and associated grave goods were rearranged in the tomb to make room for new burials. Until about 1100 BC, group burials in chamber tombs predominated among Bronze Age Greeks.[3]

Mycenaean cemeteries were located near population centers, with single graves for people of modest means and chamber tombs for elite families. The tholos is characteristic of Mycenaean elite tomb construction. The royal burials uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1874 remain the most famous of the Mycenaean tombs. With grave goods indicating they were in use from about 1550 to 1500 BC, these were enclosed by walls almost two and a half centuries later—an indication that these ancestral dead continued to be honored. An exemplary stele depicting a man driving a chariot suggests the esteem in which physical prowess was held in this culture.

Later Greeks thought of the Mycenaean period as an age of heroes, as represented in the Homeric epics. Greek hero cult centered on tombs.

Archaic and Classical Greece

Kerameikos2 Athens
Funeral monuments from the Kerameikos cemetery at Athens

After 1100 BC, Greeks began to bury their dead in individual graves rather than group tombs. Athens, however, was a major exception; the Athenians normally cremated their dead and placed their ashes in an urn.[4] During the early Archaic period, Greek cemeteries became larger, but grave goods decreased. This greater simplicity in burial coincided with the rise of democracy and the egalitarian military of the hoplite phalanx, and became pronounced during the early Classical period (5th century BC).[4] During the 4th century, the decline of democracy and the return of aristocratic dominance was accompanied by more magnificent tombs that announced the occupants' status—most notably, the vaulted tombs of the Macedonians, with painted walls and rich grave goods, the best example of which is the tomb at Vergina thought to belong to Philip II of Macedon.[4]

Visiting grave BM D73
Woman tending a tomb memorial (lekythos, 420–410 BC)

Funeral rites

NAMA Hirschfeld painter
The Hirschfeld Krater, mid-8th century BC, from the late Geometric period of Greek pottery, depicting ekphora. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

A dying person might prepare by arranging future care for the children, praying, and assembling family members for a farewell.[5] Many funerary steles show the deceased, usually sitting or sometimes standing, clasping the hand of a standing survivor, often the spouse. When a third onlooker is present, the figure may be their adult child.

Women played a major role in funeral rites. They were in charge of preparing the body, which was washed, anointed and adorned with a wreath. The mouth was sometimes sealed with a token or talisman, referred to as "Charon's obol" if a coin was used, and explained as payment for the ferryman of the dead to convey the soul from the world of the living to the world of the dead.[6] Initiates into mystery religions might be furnished with a gold tablet, sometimes placed on the lips or otherwise positioned with the body, that offered instructions for navigating the afterlife and addressing the rulers of the underworld, Hades and Persephone; the German term Totenpass, "passport for the dead," is sometimes used in modern scholarship for these.

After the body was prepared, it was laid out for viewing on the second day. Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind.[7] This part of the funeral rites was called the prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.[6] The Prothesis may have previously been an outdoor ceremony, but a law later passed by Solon decreed that the ceremony take place indoors.[8] Before dawn on the third day, the funeral procession (ekphora) formed to carry the body to its resting place.[9]

At the time of the funeral, offerings were made to the deceased by only a relative and lover. The choai, or libation, and the haimacouria, or blood propitiation were two types of offerings. The mourner first dedicated a lock of hair, along with choai, which were libations of honey, milk, water, wine, perfumes, and oils mixed in varying amounts. A prayer then followed these libations. Then came the enagismata, which were offerings to the dead that included milk, honey, water, wine, celery, pelanon (a mixture of meal, honey, and oil), and kollyba (the first fruits of the crops and dried fresh fruits).[7] Once the burial was complete, the house and household objects were thoroughly cleansed with seawater and hyssop, and the women most closely related to the dead took part in the ritual washing in clean water. Afterwards, there was a funeral feast called the perideipnon. The dead man was the host, and this feast was a sign of gratitude towards those who took part in burying him.

Scenes from funerary steles

Tombstone Xanthippos BM Sc628

Athenian shoemaker (430–420 BC)

Stele mother BM 2232

Mother handing infant into a nurse's care (425–400 BC)

Grave stele 02 pushkin

With horse (370s BC)

Stele Lysistrate Met 06.287

Farewell handshake (350–325 BC)

Grave stele 03 pushkin

Military theme (late 4th century BC)

Stele Plangon Glyptothek Munich 199

Child holding doll and bird, with goose (310 BC)

Funerary stele Nicomedia Louvre Ma4501

Presentation of wreaths (Bithynian, 150–100 BC)

Commemoration and afterlife

Orphic Gold Tablet (Hipponion-Museo Archeologico Statale Capialbi, Vibo Valentia)
Inscribed gold tablet addressing Mnemosyne ("Memory"), from a necropolis in Hipponion (4th century BC)

Although the Greeks developed an elaborate mythology of the underworld, its topography and inhabitants, they and the Romans were unusual in lacking myths that explained how death and rituals for the dead came to exist. The ruler of the underworld was Hades, not the embodiment of death/personification of death, Thanatos, who was a relatively minor figure.[10]

Performing the correct rituals for the dead was essential, however, for assuring their successful passage into the afterlife, and unhappy revenants could be provoked by failures of the living to attend properly to either the rite of passage or continued maintenance through graveside libations and offerings, including hair clippings from the closest survivors. The dead were commemorated at certain times of the year, such as Genesia.[11] Exceptional individuals might continue to receive cult maintenance in perpetuity as heroes, but most individuals faded after a few generations into the collective dead, in some areas of Greece referred to as "thrice-ancestors" (tritopatores), who also had annual festivals devoted to them.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Peter Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford University Press, 2010), vol. 1, p. 364.
  2. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, information in this section comes from Linda Maria Gigante, entry on "Funerary Art," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, vol. 1, p. 245.
  3. ^ Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," in p. 365.
  4. ^ a b c Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," p. 365.
  5. ^ Robert Garland, "Death in Greek Literature," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, vol. 1, p. 371.
  6. ^ a b Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," p. 363.
  7. ^ a b Alexiou,"The Ritual Lament In Greek Tradition," pp. 6–7.
  8. ^ Johnston, "Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece," p. 40.
  9. ^ Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," p. 364.
  10. ^ Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," p. 367.
  11. ^ a b Toohey, "Death and Burial in the Ancient World," p. 368.
Lying in repose

Lying in repose is the tradition in which the body of a deceased person, often of high social stature, is made available for public viewing. Lying in repose differs from the more formal honor of lying in state, which is generally held at the principal government building of the deceased person's country and often accompanied by a guard of honour.

Outline of ancient history

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to ancient history:

Ancient history – study of recorded human history from the beginning of writing at about 3000 BC until the Early Middle Ages. The times before writing belong either to protohistory or to prehistory. The span of recorded history is roughly 5,000 – 5,500 years, beginning with Sumerian cuneiform, the oldest form of writing discovered so far. Although the ending date of ancient history is disputed, currently most Western scholars use the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD or the coming of Islam in 632 AD as the end of ancient history.


Prothesis may refer to:

Liturgy of Preparation, also known as Prothesis

Prothesis (altar)

Prothesis (linguistics)

A form of the custom of lying in repose in Ancient Greece; see Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices

Roman funerary practices

Roman funerary practices include the Ancient Romans' religious rituals concerning funerals, cremations, and burials. They were part of the Tradition (Latin: mos maiorum), the unwritten code from which Romans derived their social norms.Roman cemeteries were located outside the sacred boundary of its cities (pomerium). They were visited regularly with offerings of food and wine, and special observances during Roman festivals in honor of the dead. Funeral monuments appear throughout the Roman Empire, and their inscriptions are an important source of information for otherwise unknown individuals and history. A Roman sarcophagus could be an elaborately crafted art work, decorated with relief sculpture depicting a scene that was allegorical, mythological, or historical, or a scene from everyday life.

Although funerals were primarily a concern of the family, which was of paramount importance in Roman society, those who lacked the support of an extended family usually belonged to guilds or collegia which provided funeral services for members.

Rosalia (festival)

In the Roman Empire, Rosalia or Rosaria was a festival of roses celebrated on various dates, primarily in May, but scattered through mid-July. The observance is sometimes called a rosatio ("rose-adornment") or the dies rosationis, "day of rose-adornment," and could be celebrated also with violets (violatio, an adorning with violets, also dies violae or dies violationis, "day of the violet[-adornment]"). As a commemoration of the dead, the rosatio developed from the custom of placing flowers at burial sites. It was among the extensive private religious practices by means of which the Romans cared for their dead, reflecting the value placed on tradition (mos maiorum, "the way of the ancestors"), family lineage, and memorials ranging from simple inscriptions to grand public works. Several dates on the Roman calendar were set aside as public holidays or memorial days devoted to the dead.As a religious expression, a rosatio might also be offered to the cult statue of a deity or to other revered objects. In May, the Roman army celebrated the Rosaliae signorum, rose festivals at which they adorned the military standards with garlands. The rose festivals of private associations and clubs are documented by at least forty-one inscriptions in Latin and sixteen in Greek, where the observance is often called a rhodismos.Flowers were traditional symbols of rejuvenation, rebirth, and memory, with the red and purple of roses and violets felt to evoke the color of blood as a form of propitiation. Their blooming period framed the season of spring, with roses the last of the flowers to bloom and violets the earliest. As part of both festive and funerary banquets, roses adorned "a strange repast ... of life and death together, considered as two aspects of the same endless, unknown process." In some areas of the Empire, the Rosalia was assimilated to floral elements of spring festivals for Dionysus, Adonis and others, but rose-adornment as a practice was not strictly tied to the cultivation of particular deities, and thus lent itself to Jewish and Christian commemoration. Early Christian writers transferred the imagery of garlands and crowns of roses and violets to the cult of the saints.

Sit tibi terra levis

Sit tibi terra levis (commonly abbreviated as S·T·T·L or S.T.T.L. or STTL) is a Latin inscription used on funerary items from ancient Roman times onwards. The English language translation is approximately "May the earth rest lightly on you" or "May the ground be light to you"; the more literal, word by word, translation, is sit "may be", tibi "to you", terra "ground, soil", levis "light" (in the sense of the opposite of "heavy").

The origin of the phrase can be found in Euripides' Alcestis; the phrase in Greek is κούφα σοι χθὼν ἐπάνωθε πέσοι, koupha soi chthon epanothe pesoi. Euripides' phrase "underwent all kinds of variations", especially in Latin poets like Propertius, Ovid, Martial and Persius; although some minor variants like Sit Ei Terra Levis -abbreviated to SETL- are attested, and excluding Roman Africa which developed its own stock formula (Ossa Tibi Bene Quiescant -OTBQ- or similar), in Latin epitaphs the phrase became formulaic, acquiring the aforementioned abbreviation. On the contrary, in Greek epitaphs, it never became such a fixed formula; it is found in various forms, e.g. γαῖαν ἔχοις ἐλαφράν, κούφη σοι κόνις ἥδε πέλοι, κούφη σεῖο γαῖ' ὀστέα κεύθοι.The Latin formula was usually located at the end of the inscription; at the beginning, another formulaic phrase was often used: Dis Manibus, i.e. "To the spirits of the dead"; first thus, then shortened to Dis Man and finally to DM. The latter, along with STTL, had replaced in about mid-first century CE, the older model, common during the first century BCE and first century CE, of ending the inscription with Hic situs est or Hic sita est ("he or she lies here"; abbreviated to HSE), and the name of the dead person.

Classical religious forms
Mystery religions
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Main beliefs
Texts/epic poems/odes
Rites and practices
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Mythical tribes
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Mythological and
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