Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Greece and Rome

Death in many cultures is not seen as an end, but a beginning of a new life in the otherworld. Elaborate rituals and special burial ceremonies are conducted to bid goodbye to the deceased. As Socrates remarked, “Look death in the face with joyful hope, and consider this a lasting truth: the righteous man has nothing to fear, neither in life, nor in death, and the gods will not forsake him.” The ancient cultures of Greece and Rome are the most popular for their elaborate death and burial rituals, and their fascination with life after death.

Death and Burial in Greek Culture

The Greeks believed that when a person dies, his spirit or psyche leaves the physical body in the form of a little breath or puff of air. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to Greek customs. The dead body was washed, anointed with oil, and dressed for the rituals. Relatives, primarily women, conducted the burial ceremonies, which can be divided into three main parts:

  • The prosthesis: This refers to the laying out and display of the body, so relatives, friends, and acquaintances could come and pay their respects to the deceased.

  • The ekphora: Ekphora is the funeral procession, where the deceased was brought to the cemetery for burial. Ekphora usually took place just before dawn, and it involved building the funeral pyre (if the dead body was to be burned) or filling up the grave with objects of daily use. More elaborate objects such as monumental earth mounds, specially built tombs, and marble statues were erected around the grave, to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten.

  • The interment: The remains of the body, or ashes, if cremated, were placed inside the tomb specially built for the deceased. The tomb could be a family plot (peribolos), a communal grave (polyandreion), or a monumental tomb for the elite. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the deceased person by his family members.

The burial ceremonies in the ancient Greek culture were a representation of the social and financial status of the deceased, as the tombs of wealthy men were built in an extravagant manner. Jewels and extravagant objects were considered essential grave offerings.

The Greeks believed those who were not buried or cremated in the appropriate manner would be destined to suffer between the two worlds and would not be given an entry into the underworld, the land of the dead, until these rites were completed.

Death and Burial in the Roman Culture

Romans could either bury or burn their dead, and depending upon the personal customs, people would choose one ritual over the other. Roman treatment of the deceased in terms of the cremation rituals perpetuated their life status.

Burial

The Romans believed the soul of a deceased person could only find peace when the physical body was buried in a proper manner and all ceremonies were conducted appropriately. If this was not done, the soul would haunt its home and other family members. It was the solemn religious duty of the living to perform solemn religious rituals for the dead.

Cremation

For those who preferred cremation over burial, there were strict religious rites to be performed. Also, the interment of the body, either the bones or ashes, had to be duly buried in the earth in order to bring happiness and peace to the soul of the deceased person. However, children less than forty days old and slaves were to be buried.

Ancient Greek and Roman Beliefs of the Afterlife

One way that human beings have come to terms with the tragedy of death is by their belief in the afterlife. In Greece, it was believed that all souls, whether good or bad, go to the underworld realm of Hades, the land of the dead. Tartaros was an area below Hades, where disobedient and evil spirits were punished. Elysium was a beautiful and tranquil place, inhabited by good spirits. When the concept of reward and punishment was introduced in the postclassical period, Tartaros became hell and Elysium became heaven.

When the hour of death arrives, red-robed deities come to take the spirit of the deceased to the land of the dead. To reach the land of the dead they must cross Acheron, one of the five underground rivers. Charon, the ferryman, takes the spirits of the dead to the other end of the river. Charon demands a small coin (obol) for this service; this is the reason why the dead are buried with a coin in their mouth.

After crossing Acheron, the soul of the deceased would be judged by Hades and all the sons of Zeus. The deceased would be assigned an eternal home depending on the deeds and the kind of life lived by the person:

  • For ordinary souls: Neutral regions of Hades, a dull and drab place

  • For evil souls (those who committed many crimes): Tartaros or hell

  • For pure and blessed souls: Elysian Fields or heaven

  • All the burial rituals and beliefs of the Greeks point to the fact that they were fascinated by the concept of the afterlife. Through the brutal beliefs related to hell and the beautiful comforting thoughts of heaven, the Greeks wanted to lead their people on a path of righteousness.

    The Roman Perspective

    For Romans, much of their beliefs in the afterlife and burial ceremonies had an influence from Greek culture and viewpoints. Ancient Romans viewed life and death in a completely unique and different way. Life was viewed as a prison for the soul who had to serve the world, cultivate physical and spiritual qualities, and perform good deeds in order to be freed from the clutches of a physical body and find its eternal place in the heavens.

    Depending on the deeds performed in the mortal world, the soul would be assigned an afterlife in hell or heaven. The ancient Romans believed hell was a location where those who commit serious sins would be punished. The punishment was in the form of fire, and endless pain and suffering.

    The mortal world was perceived as the center of the universe, and the physical body as the outer representation of the spirit. Romans believed all men to be gods, immortal beings who control their own bodies while being completely aware of the afterlife that awaited them beyond this world.

    Just like the Greeks, the Romans believed that the soul of the deceased person was carried to the other end of the world by crossing the river Styx.

    They believed that three judges — Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus — took an account of the deceased's life and activities and assigned an afterlife for the soul:

  • Warriors and heroes were sent to the Elysian Fields or paradise.

  • Good and honest citizens were sent to the Plain of Asphodel.

  • Evil spirits, those that have offended the gods, were sent to Tartaros, or the Hall of Fury (hell).

  • The ancient cultures of Greece and Rome showed a strong faith in the afterlife, which is reflected in their elaborate ceremonies and burial rituals. While specific names and rituals might vary, the basic concept of heaven and hell is the same in both cultures.

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