The ancient burial practices of the Greeks had distinct stages: the prothesis, the ekphora, and the deposition. At each stage, specific actions had to take place for the benefit of both the deceased, and, to a lesser extent, the remaining family members. This article will discuss what took place at each stage as well as some of the beliefs surrounding funerals.
Ancient Burial Practices from Greece
According to Historian Robert Garland, for the ancient Greeks, there were three distinct stages in passing “from here to there” (enthende ekeise): the act of dying, being dead but uninterred, and dead but interred. All three stages are of these ancient burial practices were different and required a different response on the part of the living members of the family and the community, i.e, what was necessary for the dying at stage 1 was different when that person becomes a corpse at stage 2 or at stage 3 when the body was finally buried; ancient burial practices required specific actions on the part of the living (specifically the family) to be completed at specific stages of death and burial.
The funeral itself (kedeia, meaning “caring for”) was the most important part for the Greeks. It was also composed of three distinct stages: the laying out of the body (prothesis), transportation to the place of interment (ekphora), and the deposition of the body or cremated remains into the ground.
1. The Prothesis
The first action taken by the next-of-kin of the deceased was to close the eyes and mouth. Initially, this practice may have been done for purely cosmetic reasons but eventually, it took on a spiritual/religious purpose. An inscription found at Smyrna indicates that closing the eyes secured the release of the psychai (soul or animating spirit) from the body.
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Next, the body was washed. This was most often done by the women of the household, though this action may have been performed individually by a person who knew their death was imminent. The ritual bathing of the corpse could be interpreted similarly to the ritual bathing of the bride before the marriage ceremony, that is, an indication that a threshold or barrier was about to be crossed as a rite of passage. If available, seawater was preferred. The bodies of soldiers killed in battle were given particular care, and their wounds were washed and dressed at this stage as well.
After the body was washed, it was then clothed and laid out on a bed (kline) with the feet facing the doorway. The head of the deceased was laid on one or several pillows, and the kline was draped with a bier-cloth (stroma). On Geometric vases the bier-cloth is often depicted as being decorated with a chequered pattern and suspended above the kline. Later, the bier-cloth is sometimes depicted decorated with ribbons.
In Geometric art, the deceased is often depicted as wearing a long ankle length robe. Later a shroud known as an endyma was wrapped around the corpse and supplemented by a looser covering known as epiblema. Usually the shroud was white although this was not the only color. A law code from Ioulis dating from the second half of the fifth century BCE specifies that only white himatia (cloaks) were to be used, while the funerary regulations of the Labyad phratry, (which dates to around 400 BCE) dictated that the color of the epiblema (shroud) should be phaotos, a colour in between white and black. It is possible that in Athens, if depictions on Attic lekythoi are taken into account, a wider variety of colors were permitted for the shroud than in other parts of Greece.
In the ancient burial practices of the Greeks, there were different attires used during the prothesis for different categories of the dead. The unmarried or recently married dead were laid out in their wedding attire, while hoplites, were buried in their hoplite dress. Few examples of burial in the full panoply are found after 700 BCE however, and typically those that are found are limited to more remote regions of Greece. In antiquity, crowns were sometimes placed on the head of the deceased, while during the Hellenistic Era wreaths of gold were placed on the head. Women are sometimes depicted wearing earrings and a necklace, and their hair was arranged as it was in life.
3. The Lamentation
The main ceremony of the prothesis in Greek ancient burial practice involved singing and ritualized lamentations, of which there were several types. The most personal was called the goös, which was an improvised lament sung by relatives or close friends of the deceased. According to Garland, the theme of the goös was, “the memory of the lives the two shared and the bitterness of loss”. The style and the content of the goös were markedly different from that of the threnos, a non-improvised, much more formal lament sung by hired mourners called the threnon exarchoi, or “leaders of the dirge”.
One function of the prothesis was to allow the mourners to fulfill their duty to the deceased by singing a funeral dirge and to honor the soul of the dead. Lamentations were not entirely spontaneous outbursts of grief but were rather highly ritualized and orchestrated. Looking at dirges from tragedy, it seems to have in part served the function of allowing the living family members to indulge in self-pity, as Theseus in Euripides’ Hippolytus exclaims on learning of his wife’s death: “You have dealt me a worse death than you have suffered…” (Euripides, Hippolytus, lines 838-839).
4. The Ekphora
There are many more artistic representations of the prothesis than there are of the ekphora (the transportation of the body to the place of burial). In each depiction the corpse is transported to the grave by a horse-drawn hearse with the men carrying weapons and leading the procession, while the women follow behind. The lack of chariots or wagons in depictions of the ekphora may reflect the lack of popularity of chariots or wagons in real life. More frequent than horse-drawn hearses were pall-bearers known as klimatkophoroi (“ladder-carriers”), nekrophoroi (“corpse-carriers”), nekrothaptai (“corpse-buriers”) and tapheis (“buriers,” “grave-diggers”). The pallbearers were likely from the deceased’s family, though in later times they were hired. Epheboi (“youths”) were sometimes specially selected for this task.
Sometimes a person’s colleagues acted as pallbearers. The corpse of the philosopher Demonax, for example, was borne to the grave by sophists. The procession of mourners was not silent — frequent stops would be made at street corners in order to attract the most amount of attention. Flutists were also present, and hired musicians accompanied the pallbearers, playing what is obscurely known as Carian music.
In some communities, a sacrifice to the dead or to underworld deities was made before the procession set out, but this practice (prosphagion) may not have survived in later periods.
5. The Deposition
The final stage was the deposition. Both inhumation and cremation were practised at the same time from the eighth to the fourth century BCE, though the popularity of each varied. Cremation was the preferred method in Archaic Greece. Evidence from Classical Greece on the other hand shows no preference for either method, while in the Hellenistic era, inhumation was more common. Greek tragedy usually depicts cremation instead of inhumation; in fact, in Homer cremation is the only method used.
In one special case, a tenth-century BCE shaft grave was found containing two compartments, one which contains at least three horse skeletons, and the other which contains two burials. Of the burials, one contains the skeleton of a woman, while the other contains an amphora filled with ashes (likely that of a man). Alongside the amphora were a spearhead, a whetstone, and an iron sword. The grave has been identified as a heroön or “hero shrine,” so it is likely that the ashes were of a warrior buried with his consort, weaponry, and horses.
As for the format of a burial, first, a libation was made, followed by the quenching of the funeral pyre with wine. The ashes were placed in an urn, and offerings made to the dead. Items such as food, water jugs, and ointment flasks were placed in or near the grave. Burned pottery, shells, and small animals such as fowl have also been found among the debris at gravesites.
According to one ancient law code, men and women were to leave the burial ground separately, though it does not make clear who leaves first. It may be assumed that the women left first in order to prepare for the perideipnon, a banquet held at the house of the deceased in their honor, while the men stayed behind to construct the tomb. The dead were thought to be present at the perideipnon as hosts. The bereaved wore garlands gave eulogies on behalf of the dead, and also may have sung songs. The ancient writer Lucian claims banquets ended a three-day fast which began from the time of the death of the deceased.
There were also meals prepared at the tomb called trita and enata, or third and ninth-day rites respectively, of which the living may have been barred from taking part for fear of passing under the influence of the spirit world. It can be assumed that the perideipnon took place before the trita and enata, since the exclusion of the living indicates that the living and the dead no longer shared the same family circle.
Some findings suggest that in the Geometric period, food was cooked and eaten at gravesites, an event that only in later times took place at the household of the dead; in the Iliad, the feast takes place before the funeral pyre for Patroclus is even burned.
In the ancient burial practices of the Greeks, there was a belief in miasma, or “pollution,” which was contrasted against the opposite concept, “hagnos”, meaning “pure,” or “sacred”. The corpse itself and those who had close contact with the body were thought to be polluted and contagious (although the degree to which this pollution affected people differed from polis to polis). Certain actions had to be taken in order to cleanse the pollution, while other actions were to be abstained from. Hesiod for example cautions against begetting children after returning from an “ill-omened burial” (Hesiod, Works and Days).
While the body was unburied, measures such as the aponimma helped reduce the polluting effect: a trench was dug on the grave’s west side and water was poured in, followed by the recitation, “aponimma for you to clean yourself with — you for whom it is meet and right” (Garland, 2001). Finally, myrrh was poured into the trench. Relatives of the deceased also took a bath upon returning home from the funeral. The deceased’s house had to be cleaned with seawater, smeared with dirt, and swept out.
Pollution was not limited to the time of death but on certain occasions during the year as well. At the Choës festival in Athens, the psychai of the dead were believed to wander around, and in order to protect themselves from pollution festival-goers would chew rhamnos, or buckthorn, and smear the doors of their houses with pitch.
8. Ancient Burial Practices from Greece: Gods, Temples, and Pollution
Gods could be affected by the pollution of the dead as well. For example. The Goddess Artemis abandoned her favorite mortal Hippolytus in his final moments: “… it is not right for me to see the dead nor to defile my sight with final breaths” (Euripides, Hippolytus, lines 1437-1438). Apollo similarly had to leave Alcestis so that her pollution would not touch him. Sacred places had to be kept clean of death’s polluting effects. Those who had come into recent contact with the dead were banned from going near temples. A second-century BCE inscription from Eresos on Lesbos stated that a person who had purified themselves after the funeral of a family member must wait twenty days before stepping foot on the temenos.
An inscription near the Propylaia in Athens informs us that it was an ancestral custom (patrios nomos) that no one should give birth or die in any temple precinct. The tyrant Peisistratos dug up all the graves which were in sight of the sanctuary of Apollo on Delos and moved the bones to another part of the island. Some priests were forbidden contact with the dead. Priests of the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, were forbidden from entering a house of mourning, visiting a grave, or attending a funeral banquet. On the island of Kos, the cult of Zeus Polieus dictated that a priest must wait five days after attending an ekphora before returning to his duties.