The Greeks and Romans mourned and disposed of their dead in a variety of ways. Proper and respectful burial rituals, they believed, helped the soul of a dead person enter the next world and protected the living from bad luck and misfortune. The early Greeks and Romans buried some people—rulers, nobles, or the wealthy—in tombs that contained clothing, weapons, and jewelry and other precious objects. This custom of burying the honored dead with grave goods, as these items are called, dates back to prehistory and was practiced in many parts of the world.
Greek Funeral Customs. The early Greeks believed that an image of a dead person might appear to a sleeping mourner in a dream, usually to announce that it would never come back again. If the image did return, however, this indicated that there had been some sort of religious failure in the burial. An improper or incomplete burial failed to release the soul from the living community, and therefore, it could not join the community of the dead as it should.
The Greeks developed elaborate rites to ensure proper burial procedures. In one Greek custom, mourners showed their respect for the dead person by washing his or her body, anointing it with olive oil, and wrapping it from head to foot in a clean cloth. They cleaned the house and draped it with wreaths of fragrant leaves, such as celery, marjoram, or laurel. The dead person’s family sang a mourning song that expressed their love and grief. At night, a funeral procession accompanied the body to the cemetery. After burial, a marker—either a large vase or an engraved stone pillar—was placed on the grave.
Graves excavated around the city of Athens reveal that the Greeks used many different burial methods over the centuries. In the 1000s B.C., people usually buried their dead in small stone-lined graves. Between 1000 and 750 B.C., most bodies were burned, or cremated, and the ashes were placed in pottery jars, which were then buried. Later Greeks buried bodies in earth-lined pits or cremated them inside the graves. After about 550 B.C., Athenians buried their dead in pits, tile-covered graves, or sarcophagi*.
Roman Funeral Customs. Roman funeral customs were also varied. Evidence from grave sites in Rome indicates that as early as 900 B.C., some dead bodies were buried, while others were cremated before being buried. Either way, for the Romans, it was important that the body be placed to rest underground.
The grave goods of the early Romans included everyday objects, such as cooking pots and lamps, as well as weapons and armor. The early Romans believed that the dead would need these possessions in the afterlife. Early Roman historical evidence suggests that the government tried to outlaw elaborate and expensive grave goods, which were not only considered wasteful, but also thought to attract grave robbers. In another ancient custom, which survived into the Christian era, mourners held a meal for the living at the burial site. Sometimes, they offered to share the meal with the dead person in the tomb. Some tombs were built with pipes or holes through which food and drink could be passed to the deceased.
The funeral customs during the Roman Republic, from 510 B.C. to 31 B.C., were simple. Most of the dead were cremated. Wealthy families owned private burial plots outside the city walls. A monument on the plot honored the family’s dead, whose ashes were buried in urns beneath it. A very wealthy person might build a lavish marble mausoleum, or funeral monument, in preparation for his own death. The dead person’s ashes were generally buried in a cavity under the mausoleum floor.
For less prosperous people, trade associations or other clubs paid for funerals. In fact, many associations were formed solely to provide decent, inexpensive funerals for their members. The associations usually arranged for an urn containing the dead person’s ashes to be placed in an underground tomb called a columbarium. Most columbaria had places for a hundred or so urns, although a few held thousands. People who were too poor to afford even a humble funeral were probably buried in mass graves outside the city walls.
In the early years of the Roman Empire, people in the western part of the empire continued to cremate their dead, while those in the eastern part adopted the Greek custom of burying them. Beginning in the A.D. 100s, however, burial became more common than cremation throughout the empire. This may have been connected to the spread of Christianity, which opposed cremation. By about A.D. 300, some people in the city of Rome began burying their dead in catacombs—a series of underground chambers or tunnels beneath buildings. Christians held funeral services in the catacombs and used them as hiding places during times of persecution by the Romans. (See also Afterlife; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)
* sarcophagi ornamental coffins, usually made of stone