Archaic and Classical Greece’s Funeral Rites

Archaic and Classical Greece’s Funeral Rites

As time moved on, the tradition changed and Ancient Greeks commonly used individual graves instead of group chamber tombs. However, in Athens, they did something completely different. People who lived in the city cremated their dead and put their ashes in an urn to commemorate them.

Grave goods and ritualistic offerings also decreased. Since the individual graves were much smaller and simpler, there wasn’t the space to leave large amounts of offerings. At this time, democracy rose in Greece. However, by the 5th century BC, during the Classical period, democracy decreased and it became popular to show aristocratic displays of wealth via elaborate tombs to reflect someone’s social status.

Vaulted Macedonian tombs were painted with vibrant colours and archaeologists have found the remains of rich grave goods. One of the best example of this is the grave thought to belong to Philip II of Macedon, Alexander The Great’s father. The site is based in Vergina, in Northern Greece.

Women were a large part of Ancient Greece’s funeral customs and traditions. It was their responsibility to wash and prepare the body for burial, pouring aromatic oil over it and adorning the body with a wreath. Sometimes, they would seal the mouth with a talisman or coin. If it was a coin, this was to represent paying Charon, the ferryman of the dead, as he took the soul from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

Priests or priestesses could not get involved in the preparation phase and weren’t allowed to go into the house where the deceased person lived. It was considered spiritually impure. The Ancient Greeks believed their gods could be affected (or polluted) by death, and so to keep them sacred they had to be kept as far away from anything related to death. Many Greek temples banned people who had recently been in contact with a dead body from entering.

Once the body was prepared for the funeral, there was a small viewing period on the second day known as the ‘prothesis’ during which ‘kinswomen’ would stand around the body. The chief mourner stood at the head (this would usually be the mother or wife of the deceased) and the others would stand behind her.

Part of this process involved singing ‘dirges’–a mournful and solemn song–and pulling at their hair and clothes. They would also hit their own torsos.

After this, on the third day, a procession known as the ‘makhorka’ carried the body to its final resting place. Relatives and lovers could leave offerings, like libation and choai (a practice which dated back to Minoan times). First, the mourner was to dedicate a lock of their own hair. Then offerings of honey, milk, perfumes, oils, water, and wine were mixed. The choai were poured at the grave, onto the steps while a prayer was spoken aloud.

Following the choai, the ‘enagismata’ involved giving offerings to the dead like celery, honey, water, wine, kollyba (first fruits of the crop and dried fruits), pelanon (meal, honey, and oil).

After the burial, the entire house and its objects had to be completely cleansed to ensure death did not pollute any other part of culture and society. The women who were most closely related to the deceased also had to clean themselves. Finally, the entire family would engage in a feast called the ‘peridinin’. The feast was hosted by the dead as a form of thanks for the burial process.

▶︎ Ancient Greek funeral traditions through the centuries
▶︎ Mycenaean Burial Traditions
▶︎ Archaic and Classical Greece’s Funeral Rites
▶︎ Funeral Orations and Lekythoi