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Greek Funeral Customs, From Ancient Times to Today

Greek funeral customs
A black-figure Pinax, or pottery plaque, showing a body lying in state in Ancient Greece, with the women of the family tearing out their hair. Latter 6th century BC. Credit: Walters Art Museum/Public Domain

The funeral and burial customs of the ancient Greeks, and even the Greeks of today, are and were so very different to those in other parts of the world that they hold a fascination for many today.

Originally closely linked to the ancient pagan beliefs revolving around the Greek gods and goddesses and the Underworld, the customs changed throughout the years as Christianity spread over the land. However, perhaps not as much as you would imagine.

Ancient Greek funerary practices are evidenced in much of Greek literature, in the archaeological record, and in ancient Greek art, including sculpture and pottery.

The ornate tombstones of Athens’ Kerameikos cemetery. Credit: Clutario / CC BY 2.0

The Myceneans, who flourished in the Argolid during the last phase of the Bronze Age of ancient Greece, from approximately 1750 BC to 1050 BC, represent the first advanced and distinctively Greek civilization in mainland Greece.

The Mycenaeans were indigenous Greeks who were likely enriched by their contact with the Minoans and other Mediterranean cultures to develop their own sophisticated sociopolitical culture.

Their palatial estates, urban organization, works of art, writing system, and funeral traditions show great elegance and are the precursors to many traditions of the Greeks throughout the centuries.

The Mycenaeans’ funeral and burial rites would include many solemn traditions. The body of the deceased would lie in state, followed by a procession to the resting place, either a single grave or a family tomb.

A reconstruction of a Tholos at Epidaurus, outside Athens. Still under excavation, it is thought to have been constructed around 600 BC, at the end of Greece’s Classical Antiquity period. Credit: Davide Mauro /CC BY-SA 4.0

Such processions and ritual laments are depicted on burial chests (larnakes) from Tanagra. Rich grave goods, such as jewelry, weapons, and vessels would be arranged around the body on the floor of the tomb.

Graveside rituals included libations and a meal for the bereaved right at the grave site, as archaeologists have often found food and broken cups at tombs. A tomb at Marathon even contained the remains of horses that may have been sacrificed at the site after drawing the funeral cart there.

The Mycenaeans seem to have practiced secondary burials, meaning 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.

Funeral stele
A funeral stele showing the sad farewell of a husband and wife. Ca. 350-325 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/CC BY 2.5

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 tomb construction for the elite.

The royal burials uncovered by the discoverer of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1874 remain the most famous of all 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.

This is a clear indication that the ancestral dead of the Mycenaeans continued to be honored. A funeral stele depicting a man driving a chariot suggests the esteem in which physical prowess was held in this culture in which martial themes were common.

Archaic and Classical-era burials in Greece

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.

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).

Orphic gold tablet Mnemosyne, instructing the dead on what to do as they enter the Underworld. Hipponion, Calabria. Fourth century BC. Credit: Sconosciuti/Public Domain

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 spectacular tomb at Vergina thought to belong to Philip II of Macedon.

Needless to say, the discovery of this historic tomb was one of the greatest archaeological events in history.

The peoples that lived around the Acropolis of Athens buried their dead in Kerameikos. The plains of the Eridanus River served as a burial place for the city for roughly 1,500 years.

A large amount of pottery with geometric patterning has been discovered at Kerameikos. The artifacts offer insight into an entire period of Ancient Greek history.

The first of these artifacts to be discovered were a group of bowls in 1871. These bowls, which were used to collect ritual offerings, were decorated with complex geometric motifs. From the 8th century BC onward, they included figures of animals and humans in their design. The bowls measured one and a half meters in diameter.

Tomb Philip of Macedon
The golden tomb and crown of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, discovered in 1977. Credit: DocWoKav/CC BY-SA 4.0

The women of Ancient Greece, as witnessed on innumerable works of art, including fine pottery, 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, the payment for the ferryman of the dead to convey the soul to the world of the dead, was used.

Initiates into mystery religions might be furnished with a gold tablet and sometimes placed on the lips or otherwise positioned with the body, which offered instructions for navigating the afterlife and addressing the rulers of the underworld, Hades and Persephone.

Priests and priestesses, perhaps surprisingly, were not allowed to enter the house of the deceased nor to take part in the funerary rites, as death was seen as a cause of spiritual impurity or pollution in ancient Greece.

The ancient Greeks believed that even the gods could be polluted by death; thus anything related to the sacred had to be kept away from death and dead bodies. Hence, many inscriptions in Greek temples state that those who had had recent contact with dead bodies were banned from the premises.

Apulian Funeral krater
An Apulian krater showing women offering goods to the deceased. Ca. 450-300 BC. Credit: Archaeology wiki

After the body was prepared, it was laid out for viewing on the second day. Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, with the chief mourner (either the mother or the wife) at the head and others behind. 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.

The Prothesis may have previously been an outdoor ceremony, but a law later passed by the Athenian jurist Solon decreed that the ceremony take place indoors. Before dawn on the third day, the funeral procession (makhorka) formed to carry the body to its resting place.

At the time of the funeral, offerings were made to the deceased by a relative to other loved one. The choai, or libation, and the haimacouria, or blood propitiation, were two types of offerings. The choai dates back to Minoan times. Since there is a complete absence of any references of such animal sacrifices on Attic lekythoi, this infers that the practice as conducted on behalf of ordinary dead was at least very rare.

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. Choai were usually poured at the grave, either on to the steps supporting the stele, or possibly over the shaft.

A prayer then followed these libations. Then came the enagismata, the offerings to the dead that included milk, honey, water, wine, celery, pelanon (a mixture of meal, honey, and oil), and kollyva (the first fruits of the crops and dried fresh fruits).

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. Afterward, there would be a funeral feast called the peridinin. The deceased was considered the host, and the feast was a sign of gratitude towards those who had taken part in burying him.

Performing the correct rituals for the dead was essential in Ancient Greece because they assured the deceased’s successful passage into the afterlife. Revenants, or the spirits of beings who were neither fully dead nor fully alive, could be provoked by failures to attend properly to either the rite of passage or the constant graveside libations and offerings afterward, which would even include hair clippings from the closest survivors.

The dead were commemorated at certain times of the year, such as Genesia.

Lekythoi as part of ancient Greek funerals

Lekythoi greek burial
A white-ground Lekythos showing Hypnos and Thanatos carrying the body of Sarpedon at Troy. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow)CC BY 2.5

White-background vessels known as lekythoi were used specifically in the funeral context, sometimes to replace grave stele. Lekythoi were used to hold funerary oil, typically olive oil. Most were hollow except for the very top ‘cup’ which would hold the oil so the lekythoi would always look full. This oil was used to wash the deceased’s body, and the body would then be wrapped in cloth. Lekythoi portrayed various scenes depicting death.

One of the best examples of these is the one above, decorated by the artist known as the Thanatos Painter. It portrays the gods Hypnos and Thanatos carrying Sarpedon after the Battle of Troy. Created in approximately 435 to 425 BC, it is now located in the British Museum.

Funeral orations major part of commemorating the dead

A funeral oration, or epitaphios logos, is a formal speech delivered on the ceremonial occasion of a funeral. In ancient Greece and, in particular, in ancient Athens, the funeral oration was deemed an indispensable component of this important ritual.

The epitaphios logos is regarded as an almost exclusive Athenian creation although some early elements of such speeches exist in the epos of Homer and in the lyric poems of Pindar. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” is the earlier extant of the genre.

The Athenians are those who set the standard and, therefore, Demosthenes praises them, saying that “you alone of all mankind publicly pronounce over your dead funeral orations, in which you extol the deeds of the brave.”

Dionysius of Halicarnassus was the first to state that the Athenians instituted the funeral oration “in honor of those who fought at Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, and died for their country, or to the glory of their exploits at Marathon.”

Thucydides describes in detail the funeral rituals observed during his day, pointing out that “the dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the most beautiful suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried.” This suburb, of course, was Kerameikos, where there was a monument for all the Athenians who fell in battle along with many other individuals.

Historians now believe that the demosion sema (a collective burial site for the war dead) and the epitaphios logos were first established around 470 BC. These customs continued during the Periclean period. The earliest preserved casualty list, providing the names of those who died fighting for their city in a given year, dates back to 490 to 480 BC and is associated with the battle of Marathon.

“Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, as reported by Thucydides, is the earliest epitaphios presented in full. The burial of the war dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War is regarded as reflecting the fifth-century dominance of the public co-memorial.

Homer wrote that at the funeral of Patroclus, chief in all the mourning was the hero Achilles. He laid his bloodstained hand on the breast of his friend and cried, “Fare well Patroklus, even in the house of Hades. I will now do all that I erewhile promised you; I will drag Hector hither and let dogs devour him raw; twelve noble sons of Trojans will I also slay before your pyre to avenge you.”

Plato described the traditional Athenian funeral oration in this way: “And the speech required is one which will adequately eulogize the dead and give kindly exhortation to the living, appealing to their children and their brethren to copy the virtues of these heroes, and to their fathers and mothers and any still surviving ancestors offering consolation.”

The epitaphios speech consisted of the preamble in which the orator usually asserts that it is almost impossible for him to find words worthy of the glorious achievements of the war dead.

The origin and ancestors of the deceased are then recounted with an emphasis on the exploits of the war dead, including their self-sacrifice and their devotion to the Athenian state.

The epilogue, at the conclusion, would consist of a consolation and an encouragement for the families of those who had perished at war. The epilogue employs a traditional dismissal of the mourners for further private lament at which point the city’s promise of education for the surviving orphans signals the resumption of life in the polis.

Some small hints of the traditions of Ancient Greece live on today in the traditions of the Greek Orthodox with a wake over the deceased the night before, much like the ancient prothesis and the offerings of koliva, consisting of rice and other grains along with raisins, like the koliva of old.

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