Greek Burial and Lamentation Rituals
Loretta M. Alirangues
There is a
right time and a right place to die according to the ancient Greeks. While life was preferred over death, if it was time for a person to depart from this world, then so be it.
The ancient Greeks believed that at the moment of death, a person obtained a higher level of consciousness. This meant that the last words uttered by a dying person were to be taken seriously. These words could be a prophesy, or words of wisdom for friends and family to ponder.
In Classical Times (500-400 B.C.), it was believed that all souls passed on to the underworld realm known as Hades not just those who had been bad during life. Tartaros was a realm below Hades where disobedient, lesser gods were sent for punishment. Elysium was a wonderous realm located at the western end of the earth and inhabited by those in favor of Zeus. During the Post-Classical Period, the concept of reward and punishment for deceased mortals was introduced. At this point, Tartaros became hell and Elysium became heaven. The river Styx ran around the perimeter of Hades seven times.
There are different myths as to what would happen upon arrival in Hades. According to Homer, a soul would arrive at an immense lake that had to be crossed by boat. Charon, the ferryman of the dead, would call out the names of the places within Hades that the boat would be sailing to. Charon also ferried souls across the river Styx. In another myth, the dead arrive at a huge meadow. After judgement, they proceed to a place where sample lives are put before them. Then they journey to a desert called Lethe. They must endure terrible heat and spend the night there. The next day they are born to a new life of their choosing. According to Plato, most people led a neutral existence neither good nor bad. Upon arrival in Hades, the deceased persons sail to the Acherusian Lake. While dwelling there, they undergo purification until they are sent back to Earth to be born again as living creatures.
A Greek funeral was carried out in three stages: the body was prepared and laid out (prothesus or wake), the body was moved to the place where it would be interred (ekphora or procession), and the body or cremated remains were deposited in the tomb or grave.
Closing the eyes and the mouth of a corpse upond death was the first thing that was done to prepare the body for burial. The body was washed by the women of the household. If seawater was available, it was preferred. If the deceased was killed in battle, the wounds were cleaned and dressed.
The corpse was then dressed in an ankle-length shroud. This shroud was either white or gray. Deceased soliders were dressed in military cloaks. If the person was about to be married or had recently been married, they were dressed in their wedding attire. The hair was arranged as it had been in life; the bodies of women were given earrings and a necklace to wear. The jewelry was usually modest.
In antiquity it was customary to place a diadem (crown) on the head of the corpse. The exact reason for this is not known, but most likely it was to add dignity. In Athens, crowns of gold were often used, but more often the crown was made of tree branches or celery. Gold was also used to adorn the deceased in Mycenae (1600-1200 B.C.) The skeletal remains found in the royal graves were literally covered in gold. Some were adorned with pure gold diadems as well as necklaces of golden laurel leaves. But some skeletons, presumed to be those of kings, were found covered with gold masks and breast plates.
The corpse was laid out on a bed with its feet facing the door. The bed was draped with a bier-cloth that had a checkered pattern. A coin was usually placed in the mouth as payment to Charon for ferrying the deceased across the Styx. A linen chin strap was tied around the head or a cushion was placed beneath the head. This was to prevent the jaws from opening. According to Homer, the prothesis could have lasted any number of days, however, in later periods, it lasted for twenty-four hours.
The most important part of the prothesis was the ritual lament. While singing, the persons involved would move around the bier in a pattern resembling a dance. The goos was an improvised lament sung by friends and relatives. Another type of lament called the threnos was sung by professional mourners. The hired singer would lead off the lament followed by the family singing the goos. A chorus of women cried out in accompaniment. In the Pre-Classical period (750-500 B.C.) the entire lament was sung in chorus, while in the Classical period laments called kommoi were sung in turn by principal singers and a chorus.
In the portion of the funeral known as the ekphora, the corpse was brought to the grave by horse-drawn hearse or it was carried by pall-bearers. The pall-bearers were comprised of klimakphoroi (ladder-carriers), mekrophoroi (corpse-carriers), nekrothaptai (corpse-buriers), and tapheis (grave diggers). At one time these pall-bearers were family members, but in later times they were probably hired. Musicians were also hired to provide the music. Men led the procession, and women followed behind. It was customary in some communities to make a sacrifice before the procession started, but this practice was probably abandoned by the Pre-Classical period. The mourners usually did not remain silent while proceeding to the cemetery. They would stop at each street corner and lament in order to attract attention. The women tore at their hair and lacerated their cheeks with their fingernails. In the early days of Christianity, legislation was passed which ordered silence during the ekphora.
Both inhumation and cremation were practiced by the ancient Greeks. When a corpse was cremated, wine was used to extinguish the funeral pyre. A relative gathered the ashes and put them into an urn. Offerings of food and ointments were then made to the dead. These offerings were deposited in the grave or right next to the grave. From the eighth century B.C. through the Classical period, it was common to have an offering trench near the grave. The offerings were set on wooden planks and burned. Remnants of small animals, birds, burnt pottery and shells have been found.
At the conclusion of the burial ceremony, the women were the first to leave so they could go home and prepare a banquet held in honor of the deceased. The men remained behind to finish the preparation of the tomb or grave. When all was done, a stele, very similar to modern gravestones, was placed over the grave.
When a body was interred in a tomb instead of a grave, it may have been one of the following types: a peribolos, which was a family plot; a polyandreion, which was a communal grave; or a heroon which was a monumental tomb built for heroes and VIPs and their families. A heroon was usually composed of several rooms with a courtyard in the center. In the middle of the courtyard was a round section that contained the tomb chamber. Less care was used to bury children than was used for adults. Usually the bodies of children were placed in large, clay pots and then buried.
It was extremely important to family members to visit tombs regularly. Sometimes a childless man would adopt an heir to ensure that someone would visit his grave after he was deceased. Rites were performed at the gravesite on the third, ninth and thirtieth days after death. Visits were then made monthly, annually, and on holidays. On a typical visit, the stele was adorned with colorful ribbons and floral wreaths as well as being annointed with oils. Lekythos vases filled with oil were one of the most popular gifts brought on a visit to the cemetery. On it were painted scenes of people bringing gifts to the grave of a loved one. A feast was laid out at the tomb or gravesite in honor of the deceased. However, it is unknown whether the living ate any of the food or not. Among the food that was used were honey cakes, celery, pomegranates and eggs.
In Pre-Classical times, there is evidence of the ritual slaughter of both animals and humans at gravesites. These blood sacrifices were called haimakouriai. The expression sphagia entemnein meaning cut up the victims was also used. A sheep or an ox was the animal most often used, and only female or castrated animals were deemed appropriate. The color of the animal was usually black, and it was slaughtered over the offering trench to appease the souls of the dead. Its head was pointed downwards so that the blood would drip down and seep into the earth. The animal was then skinned and burned. These sacrifices were most often made at sunset. In later times, when only animal sacrifices were allowed, human hair was put on the funeral bier as a replacement for an actual human sacrifice.
The pouring of drink offerings known as choai was an important part of the grave rites. Sometimes a feeding tube was inserted into the grave to ensure that the deceased person received the fluid, but most often it was poured over the grave or on the steps leading to the stele. The liquid was made up of honey, milk, water, wine and oil. Sometimes these ingredients were mixed together, and sometimes they were poured individually.
Today, pre-Christian funerary rituals and laments are still practiced in small villages throughout Greece. The dressing and laying out the body are among exactly the same as in antiquity. There are only a few differences in the funeral procession. Before the start of the procession, the village church bells will ring. This summons the priest and the entire population to the home of the deceased where the procession will begin. The procession is led by non-relatives carrying offerings. Next in line are the cantor and priest, followed by the bier which is also carried by non-relatives. At the rear are the family members first the men, then the women.
A priest presides over a modern burial. He lays a piece of pottery or tile with the inscription Jesus Christ conquers on top of the coffin and then throws a clump of dirt on the coffin. The mourners throw fruit and flowers into the grave and sing laments. Immediately after burial, water is passed around so everyone can wash their hands. Then they all gather in the house of the dead persons family for a feast.
It is customary to exhume the dead after one, three or seven years. If the flesh has completely dissolved, the bones are washed in wine and reinterred. But if the body is black and putrid, it is believed that the dead person has become a revenant. This means that he or she is burning in Hell. When this happens, the remains are usually cremated. The Church has accepted this pagan custom and supervises it.
As you can see, many of the modern funerary customs practiced in the West are derived from those of the ancient Greeks. A major exception is the lament. I would, therefore, like to end with some examples of modern laments:
My love, I loved you well, I kept you well.
I kept you as musk in the box and wire in the reed.
I kept you as a silver lamp which lit up the home.
Not the wire has rusted, the musk has lost its fragrance,
now the silver lamp has fallen and shattered.
My sun, where have you set off too, and where will you leave your widow?
and where will you leave your mother, an old woman with half a soul?
and where will you leave your orphans, young and weak as they are?
and where will you leave your brothers? Have you no pity for them?
You have left me desolate, what path am I to take?
If I turn downwards, there is a precipice, if upwards, a storm.
I will go to the monastery, I will put on black,
I will leave your children, I will leave your old mother.
I had my child as the sun, and now that my child is obscured, I his mother, am without sun. My child was a bright star, but now he is hidden, and the gloom of night has enshrouded me, his mother. My child was light to me, but he is quenched, and now I walk in darkness.