Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Greek Burial Rituals

Quinn Nelson
Honr 201
Greek Burial Rituals
At some point in time, everyone has learned or at least heard about the extensive burials of the Ancient Egyptians. They were known for their elaborate tombs, but more importantly for the extensive process of mummification. However, were the Ancient Greeks similar in their tendencies towards death? This post is here to further explain Greek burial rites.
            The Greek funeral was a process with many steps. According to Hame, the steps that went into a typical Athenian burial were “…preparation of the body (bathing, anointing, crowning, clothing),the laying out of the body, the procession to the grave, lamentation(at various stages), burial (grave digging, sacrifice, tomb construction), funeral meal, purification, post funeral visitations to the tomb(e.g., third- and ninth-day rites), and conclusion of mourning (thirtieth-day rites)” (Hame 1). As one can see, this was not a quick process. Additionally, the Greek burial ritual was mainly the duty of the family of the deceased. This family was in charge of the preparations of the body, as well as the funeral. Gender roles are present in this process with the distinction between male and female jobs during the funeral. According to Hame, “…preparation of the body for burial in a private funeral was apparently the prerogative of female relatives...Male relatives, however, were most likely responsible for conducting the act of burial itself (i.e., inhumation or cremation, grave digging, and tomb construction) (Hame 1). While each gender had their specific job, the typical Greek funeral was most definitely a family effort, with all members participating. As far as inheritance, Griffith-Williams says that “…inheritance in Classical Athens was not solely to do with the transmission of property. Equally important, if not more so, was the continuation of a deceased citizen’s oikos (‘family’ or ‘line of descent’) by a successor who would not only inherit the estate but also carry out the funeral and commemorative rites on behalf of the deceased” (Griffith-Williams 146). Griffith goes on to say that the inheritance went to the first born legitimate son of a man. However, things tended to get controversial when the person had no son and had to name an artificial heir.

            Greek tombs were relatively simple. Remains of those killed abroad were often brought home, as to be buried by the family. Most Greeks were cremated, and thusly buried in urns, while others were buried as bodies in varying types of “coffins”. Zafeiropoulou remarks how the excavation of an ancient Greek cemetery shows the evolution of burial practices saying how archeologists found “…seventh- and sixth-century B.C. burials in large jars, fifth-century marble urns and grave stelae, and Hellenistic and Roman marble sarcophagi on elaborate pedestals” (Zafeiropoulou 1). Over time, the Greeks changed what they placed the bodies in, however, more striking is the artwork found on said “coffins.” Zafeiropoulou describes the vases found in the tomb as depicting “…war and mourning, following in a continuous narration the killing of a warrior in battle, fellow soldiers fighting for his body, and the laying out of the corpse before cremation…” (Zafeiropoulou 1). Similar to artifacts such as the Warka vase, these vases found in the tomb tell a story. This story is most likely the story of the death and funeral of the deceased. Unfortunately, Zafeiropoulou does not mention whether the remains of the body were in these vases, or whether they were simply buried with the body.

 Additionally, the Greeks disliked mass cemeteries. They wished to construct the tombs of their deceased ancestors in special and private areas. Patterson mentions how “Despite a modern penchant for speaking of burial as located in spatially bound or defined “cemeteries,” Athenian usage(verbal and practical) emphasized the tombs themselves, which frequently were placed alongside roads or at gates and not in public or private corporate cemeteries” (Patterson 10). This shows a desire for privacy, as well as the opportunity for happiness in the afterlife. Needless to say, the Greeks viewed death in a very unique way. Mystakidou explains that “A careful examination of the Greek culture can help us comprehend the attitudes and traditions preserved through time. The word “end” (“telos”) in the Greek language has two meanings: termination and purpose. Death is, therefore, the termination, but also the final goal of our life” (Mystakidou 24). This interpretation of death shows that the Greeks saw purpose in life. Life was a preparation for death and the afterlife. Death was not to be feared, but rather embraced after a life of preparation.

            Overall, the Greeks definitely saw death as important. It was a time for the passage of inheritance, and the family coming together to give a loved one their last rites. While not as elaborate as say the Egyptian rituals, Greeks rituals were heartfelt goodbyes that gave the deceased the greatest chance at honor and happiness in the afterlife.

 This is an urn common to ancient Greek burials.


GRIFFITH-WILLIAMS, BRENDA. "Oikos, Family Feuds And Funerals: Argumentation And Evidence In Athenian Inheritance Disputes." Classical Quarterly 62.1 (2012): 145-162. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Hame, Kerri J. "Female Control Of Funeral Rites In Greek Tragedy: Klytaimestra, Medea, And Antigone." Classical Philology 103.1 (2008): 1-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
MYSTAKIDOU, KYRIAKI, et al. "Death And Grief In The Greek Culture." Omega: Journal Of Death & Dying 50.1 (2004): 23-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Patterson, Cynthia B. "The Place And Practice Of Burial In Sophocles' Athens." Helios 33.(2006): 9-48. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
"Urns Throughout History | The Urn Review." The Urn Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. <>.
Zafeiropoulou, Foteini, and Anagnostis Agelarakis. "Warriors Of Paros." Archaeology 58.1 (2005): 30-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

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