The Greeks attached great importance to the burial of the dead. They believed that souls could not enter the Elysian Fields till their bodies had been buried; and accordingly we find the shade of Elpenor in the Odyssey (xi. 66, etc.) earnestly imploring Odysseus to bury his body. So strong was this feeling among the Greeks that it was considered a religious duty to throw earth upon a dead body which a person might happen to find unburied ( Hor. Carm.i. 28Hor. Carm., 36); and among the Athenians, those children who were released from all other obligations to unworthy parents were nevertheless bound to bury them ( c. Timarch. 14). The neglect of burying one's relatives is frequently mentioned by the orators as a grave charge against the moral character of a man, since the burial of the body by the relations of the dead was considered a religious duty by the universal law of the Greeks. The common expressions for the funeral rites, τὰ δίκαια, νόμιμα or νομιζόμενα, προσήκοντα, show that the dead had, as it were, a legal and moral claim to burial.
At the moment of death the eyes and mouth were closed by one of those present ( Phaed.118). According to Lucian, the obolus to serve as Charon 's fare was at once placed in the mouth of the corpse. This coin was also called δανάκη (Hesych. s. v.). The custom is first mentioned by Aristophanes ( Frogs, 139), and does not appear to have been in use at a very early date. Confirmation of the practice is given by actual discoveries, for coins are frequently found in Greek tombs, and in some between the teeth of the skeleton. The body was then washed (Eurip. Phoen.1319 Phoen., 1667), anointed with perfumes, and clothed in rich garments, generally white in colour. These were buried or burned with the body, but the number of them was limited by a law of Solon ( Plut. Sol.21). A wreath of flowers was placed upon the head (Eurip. Phoen.1632). Golden wreaths, in imitation of laurel or other foliage, were sometimes used, and have been found in graves.
The corpse, thus prepared, was laid out (πρόθεσις, προτίθεσθαι) on a bed (κλίνη), which appears to have been of the ordinary kind, with a pillow (προσκεφάλαιον) for supporting the head and back ( c. Eratosth. 18). By a law of Solon it was ordered that the πρόθεσις should take place inside the house (Lex ap. Demosth. c. Macart. p. 1071. 62). As among the Romans, the feet were turned towards the door ( Hom. Il.xix. 212). Vases of a special kind (λήκυθοι), probably containing perfumes, were placed beside the body ( Ar. Eccl.1032Ar. Eccl., 538). These vases were also buried with the coffin, and a large number of them have been found in graves in Attica. A few of them are in the ordinary black and red figured styles, but the greater number are of a special ware of great beauty, manufactured for funeral purposes. In this ware the ground is white, and scenes are painted upon it in bright colours, in a freer and less rigid style than in the vases with red or black figures. See E. Pottier, Étude sur les Lécythes Blancs Attiques, à Représentations Funéraires (Paris, 1883); Benndorf, Griechische und sicilische Vasenbilder (Berlin, 1869); . A honey-cake (μελιτοῦττα), intended as a sop for Cerberus, was also placed by the side of the corpse ( Aristoph. Lys.601). Before the door, a vessel of water was placed (ἀρδάνιον), in order that persons who had been in the house might purify themselves from the pollution of death by sprinkling water on their persons (Eurip. Alc.98).
The near relatives of the deceased assembled round the bed on which he was laid, and uttered loud lamentations. Although more violent signs of grief were forbidden by Solon ( Plut. Sol.21), we find that Lucian (De Luctu, 12) mentions as accompaniments of the πρόθεσις, not only groaning and wailing, but also beating of breasts, tearing of hair, laceration of cheeks, rending of garments, and sprinkling of ashes upon the head. It was perhaps with the object of limiting the time for these excesses of grief that Solon ordained that the burial should take place on the day after the πρόθεσις, before sunrise, and that Plato (Leges, xii. 959 A) declared that the πρόθεσις should not last longer than was necessary to show that death had really taken place. It appears that singers were hired to lead the mourning chant at the πρόθεσις (Lucian, De Luctu, 20).
A vase representing the πρόθεσις, is shown in Pottier. The corpse lies upon a couch, and is covered with a rich garment. The head alone is unveiled, and is surrounded with a fillet (ταινία). Two female figures stand beside the couch, with gestures of grief. One of them carries a tray or basket, across which two fillets are laid. Other fillets are placed across the couch. In the background is a mirror, or fan, perhaps intended for the keeping away of flies (cf. Dio Cass. lxxiv. 4, 2).
The funeral (ἐκφορά, ἐκφέρειν) took place legally, as has been already remarked, on the day following the πρόθεσις. It might, however, be put off several days to allow of the arrival of distant friends ( Timol.39). The early morning was the usual time ( Leges, xii. 960 A). The bier was borne either by hired bearers (νεκροφόροι, Poll.vii. 195), or, in cases where it was decided to honour the dead, by specially selected citizens ( Timol.39). The men walked before the corpse and the women behind, and it appears that musicians were hired to play mournful tunes on the flute and sing dirges (θρῆνοι) at the ἐκφορά as well as at the πρόθεσις. Those who accompanied the funeral wore mourning garments of a black or dark colour (Eurip. Alc.427). The head was also shaved or the hair cut as a sign of grief ( Homer Od.iv. 197; Il.xxiii. 46 Il., 135 Il., 141 Il., 146; Bion. Idyll.i. 81).
Representations of the ἐκφορά are rare. A stamped terracotta plaque was found at the Piraeus (in the collection of M. Rayet, Convoi Funèbre, No. 75). The corpse lies upon a couch. The head is bare; the rest of the body covered. The couch is placed upon a car drawn by two horses, though mules were oftener used. Mourners accompany it with gestures of grief. A female attendant carries upon her head a vessel, probably to serve for libations. Another attendant plays upon the double flute.
It was the custom, at Athens at any rate, to hold public funerals for those who had fallen in war. Thucydides (ii. 34) describes with some minuteness the proceedings usual on such occasions. The πρόθεσις of the bones took place on a platform (or perhaps in a booth or tent) erected for the purpose in some public place. On the day of the funerals, coffins of cypress wood, one for each tribe, were carried upon wagons. Each coffin contained the bones of the members of the tribe to which it was assigned. An empty couch, adorned as for a funeral, was borne in the procession to represent those whose bodies had not been found. The procession was accompanied by any citizens and aliens who wished to attend, and by women who were related to those who had fallen. In Greece, funeral orations were pronounced only at public funerals of the kind described, not, as at Rome, over individuals, even though they were specially distinguished (Dion. Hal. v. 17). This custom seems to have arisen about the time of the Persian Wars. In other respects the procedure at a public funeral does not seem to have differed from that in use at private burials.
In spite of the statement of Lucian (De Luctu, 21) that the Greeks burned their dead and the Persians buried them, it is certain, both from literary evidence and also from the excavation of tombs, that burning and burying were both practised by the Greeks. The word θάπτειν is used of the burial of the ashes after cremation, but κατορύττειν refers only to the burial of an unburned body. We hear of burial also among the Spartans ( Plut. Lyc.27; Thuc.i. 134). In Homer there is no mention of any burial without burning; but in graves at Mycenae, skeletons have been found which showed no traces of fire. Evidence both of burning and burying has been found in graves of a later date in many parts of the Greek world. See Hermann-Blümner, Privatalterth. p. 375.
The pile of wood (πυρά) upon which the body was burned was sometimes erected over the grave in which the ashes were to be buried. There is a full description of cremation in the Homeric period in Iliad (xxiii. 161 foll.), where Achilles celebrates the funeral of Patroclus. The pyre was made a hundred feet in length and breadth, and the bodies of sheep, oxen, horses, dogs, and twelve Trojan captives were placed upon it. Honey and perfumes were also poured upon it before it was lighted. When the pyre had burned down, the remains of the fire were quenched with wine, and the relatives and friends collected the bones or ashes ( Il.xxiv. 791). The remains thus collected were placed in a receptacle sometimes of gold, but generally of a less precious material, and buried. A description of these receptacles, of the other articles placed in the tomb, and of the tomb itself will be found in the Sepulcrum.
When bodies were buried without previous cremation, they were generally placed in coffins, which were called by various names, as σοροί, ληνοί, λάρνακες, δροῖται, though some of these names were also applied to the urns in which the bones were collected. For further information upon this point, see the article Sepulcrum.
Immediately after the funeral was over, the relatives partook of a feast which was called περίδειπνον or νεκρόδειπνον (Lucian, De Luctu, 24). It was the custom that this feast should be given at the house of the nearest relative (Demosth. De Cor. p. 321. 355).
Other ceremonies were performed on the third, the ninth, and the thirtieth days after the funeral, and were called respectively τρίτα, ἔνατα, and τριακάς or τριακάδες ( Poll.viii. 146). The rites on the thirtieth day ( Poll.i. 66Poll., iii. 102) included a repetition of the funeral feast.
It was also the custom to bring offerings to the tomb on certain days in each year (Plato, De Leg. iv. 717 E). Herodotus mentions that these annual sacrifices to the dead were called γενέσια (iv. 26), from which it is inferred that they were offered on the birthday of the deceased (cf. Diog. Laert.x. 18). The name νεκύσια was also used in the same sense. The ceremonies which were performed at these stated intervals might be used at any other time, if for some reason it was necessary to appease the departed spirit. The word ἐναγίζειν was used for the act of offering, ἐναγίσματα for the things offered on these occasions. These consisted of libations (χοαί) of wine, oil, milk, honey mixed with water or milk ( Aesch. Pers.609 foll.), which were poured upon the ground (γάποτοι, Aesch. Pers.621). Elaborate banquets were sometimes prepared, burned in honour of the dead, and buried in a trench (Lucian, Char.22). Wreaths were also placed upon the grave-stones, and they were anointed with perfumes.
The Conclamatio, or lamentation for the dead. (From a Roman relief.)
The period of mourning varied in length at different places. At Athens the τριακάς seems to have ended it on the thirtieth day after the funeral (Lysias, De Caede Erat. 14). At Sparta it lasted only eleven days ( Plut. Lyc.27).
Certain special rites were used in particular cases. A spear was carried in front of the body of any person who had died a violent death, as a symbol of the revenge which was to follow the murderer (Eurip. Troad. 1148). In the case of those who had committed suicide, the hand which had done the deed was cut off and buried separately ( in Ctes. 244). Certain criminals, who were put to death by the State, were also deprived of burial, which was considered to be an additional punishment ( Plut. Them.22; Thuc.i. 134). The bodies of those persons who had been struck by lightning were regarded as sacred (ἱεροὶ νεκροί); they were not buried with others (Eurip. Suppl. 935), but usually on the spot where they had been struck ( Oneirocr. ii. 9, p. 146).
It has been already mentioned that in the public funerals of those killed in war, an empty couch was carried in the procession to represent those whose bodies had not been found. In other cases, where a person was supposed to be dead, though his body was not found, funeral rites were performed for him (Eurip. Hel.1241 foll.). If such a person was afterwards found to be alive, he was considered impure, and was not allowed to enter temples till certain rites had been performed. These rites consisted in a symbolism of birth and the ceremonies connected with it. The δευτερόποτμος or ὑστερόποτμος was washed, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and fed with milk. Having been thus born again into life, he was freed from his impurity ( Q. R. 5).
Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire