The Spectacle of Death: Funerary Customs in Ancient Greece and Italy
Iron Age inhabitants of Italy known as Villanovans cremated their deceased, placed their ashes in urns, and buried the urns in simple well-shaped graves. Grave goods found with the urns suggest a belief in the afterlife. The cultures of ancient Greece and Rome had similar burial customs. Upon death, the ancients washed, dressed, and placed the deceased on a couch for viewing. Mourners could visit the deceased for several days, after which the body was carried to the cemetery in a funeral procession.
The Greeks practiced both cremation and inhumation and buried the remains along with grave goods. The Romans cremated their dead on a wooden pyre and placed their ashes in urns, which were buried with goods or put in columbaria (underground vaults for storing urns). The Romans also practiced inhumation, but countless surviving ash urns attest the frequency of cremation.
During Greek and Roman burial ceremonies, mourners sang, danced, and performed ritual prayers; sometimes mourners were even hired. The Greeks and Romans marked graves with stelai (stone slabs similar to modern tombstones), pottery, and statues to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. They also held funerary banquets, which were the principal way of honoring the dead. Commemoration of the dead continued after burial in both cultures. Greeks and Romans celebrated the deceased’s birthday and death anniversary by bringing gifts and eating meals at the burial site. Women played an important role in funerary customs, and it was their duty to continually maintain the grave sites of family members. Over time, Judaism and Christianity influenced burial customs, which shifted from cremation to inhumation.
Asphodel Plains and Elysium Fields: The Shadowy World of Greek and Roman Afterlife
Greek and Roman belief held that the human soul was immortal, but its fate was not entirely a happy one. After death, the soul continued to exist in the Underworld, presided over by the god Hades/Pluto. Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel.
Wherever one ended up in the Underworld, the prospect for most Greeks and Romans did not seem to be a particular happy one. Death was dreaded, even feared. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial. In the Odyssey (24.5–9), Homer’s words adeptly capture the character of Hades’ melancholy realm:
"…down the dank, moldering paths and past the Ocean's streams they went,
and past the White Rock and the Gates of the Sun and past
the Land of Dreams, and soon they reached the pale fields of asphodel
where the dead, the burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home."
This grim idea of the afterlife probably led to the foundation of “mystery religions,” many of which promised some sort of salvation and thus became extremely popular in the Graeco-Roman world. Early Christianity shared traits with such religions.