Ancient Greek Burial Customs

The ancient Greeks held firm beliefs of the afterlife and the ceremonies that would help guide those recently departed toward it. In fact, by the 6th century BC, their conceptions and ideas were already well established and this is evident throughout their writings, works of art, statuary and other archaeological materials. While the images and quirks of the Greek gods may seem fanciful to many nowadays, they have far outlived the people of the time and are still very much a part of popular culture today.

greek burial

According to the belief system of the ancient Greeks, they held it as true that from the moment death occurred, the spirit would vacate the mortal body via a small action, such as a puff of air or as a sigh. Once this had occurred, the body would then be prepared for burial, which would be performed according to the traditions and customs passed down through generations. To deprive a man of proper burial rights was seen as an insult to dignity and respect.

 

Typically, all burial rituals were conducted by the female relatives of the departed. This would consist of 3 parts, all of which completed the ritual.  The first step, called Prothesis, would involve the body of the dead being washed thoroughly, and then covered with oil. The body would then be dressed and taken to the highest bed in the house where they were laid. Family and friends could then visit and pay their respects.

 

The next step is called Ekphora.  Ekphora is the moment when the body of the deceased was taken to the cemetery as part of a dawn procession. Inside the grave, it would be rare to place any objects other than the body itself. Once the grave had been filled and the earth replaced, elaborate markers were placed on top of the site. Statues were often a marker of choice to help ensure that the dead were not easily forgotten. In a way, these were the predecessors to headstones that many people have today.

 

Their belief was that to be remembered by the living was tantamount to immortality. From engravings of the time, it is known that female family members would visit the burial sites of the dead with small offerings, such as cakes and flowers.

 

The 3rd part of the ritual was Stelai, which were small inscriptions covering memorandums to help honor the dead. An image of the deceased would also often be inscribed onto the marker, and if the person was of importance, their servant, pet dogs, belongings, etc would be added to it. This used to make identifying the dead easy, but as time progressed, more and more family members would be added to images and writings and soon it would become almost impossible to know who the grave belonged to.

 

As the end of the 5th century BC approached, many ancient Greek families started to bury the deceased inside a basic stone sarcophagus, which would be put into the ground located inside of specially created grave precincts. These grave precincts were placed inside terraces and were buttressed by a tall wall which would face the main cemetery street. It was also around this time that any large monuments and statues were placed to the side of the terrace instead of directly above the graves. As time moved forward, so did the customs and cultures of the ancient Greeks.

 

If you see modern day cemeteries in Greece, you will quickly notice that many of the traditions and practices from this period of time are still very much used to some degree or another, and the dead are immortalized through the memories of the era they were once a part of.