Death in Greek Society
Examine Greek funerary practices. What were the main stages between death and burial in the Greek world? How distinctive do these seem, and which aspects of the Greek response to death seem significantly different from modern experience?
In their society, ancient Greeks saw death as a time when the soul of the deceased left the world and departed to Hade’s underworld. This untouchable soul was believed to be visible and could be followed down into its final resting place. Homer believed that human error was the only cause of death in the society and that those responsible for the death were tasked with securing a proper burial. This is why ghosts of the deceased would often appear to hunt the living – to demand a proper burial. The Classical times saw the birth of punishment after death, or the opposite side of the coin which was the reward for a good life after death. Greek societies believed that if the proper rituals did not occur than “the soul will remain trapped between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead”. There were three distinct parts of Ancient Greek burial practices, which were the prothesis, the ekphora and the perideipnon. The first step of the burial process was the prothesis which involved preparing the body for burial and the displaying of the deceased for those that wished to pay their respects. This begun with the relatives of the deceased, more than likely the parents or spouse, closing the eyes and mouth and placing a coin in the mouth of the dead man or woman. This act was to allow them access to the underworld through the River Styx and the gold would act as a payment for Charon, the boatman. Female relatives and mourners would then wash the body clean and dress it in clothes that would represent the status of the deceased, so if the deceased was a warrior in the Greek armies than he would be buried in his full battle regalia. The now clean body would then be placed on display and given final respects by loved ones. The formal mourning period thus began during the prothesis. The men of the family would not show any emotion and would have to preside over the ceremony in a detached manner. Depictions of the event would show the male head of the household some distance from the gathering and the corpse that had been laid out. The chief mourner of the funeral would be the woman that was chief in the deceased’s life, whether it be a sister or mother or wife. They were expected to make great shows of grief. The body was then taken to the ekphora, after the prosthesis. This occurred at night and was designed to try and attract the most mourners and spectators as could be found in the streets, as well as family members that would join the precession later on. The family often hired musicians or performers to accompany the procession and draw attention to them. Cremation and burial were then practiced once the procession had arrived at the grave if that is what the family had decided upon. Many scholars are forced to guess the proper form of internment due to lack of information from the time period on that process. A coin was then placed in the deceased mouth to pay Charon, the Styx’s ferryman who would take them to the underworld. His payment was often silver and they would lay the body out with its feet facing the entry way so that Charon could find them properly. There was then a viewing of the body which lasted for two full days and nights, with lamentation and dance called Threnos. Dance and song would made loud to draw attention to the deceased. A ceremony of sowing the earth with fruits was then made, giving the dead a peaceful rest in the earth. This would also allow the dead to return to the land of the living to guide their families. The peridipnon was then held. This was a large banquet at the home of the deceased, held in honour of the fallen dead. After these practices, on the third day, the ninth day and the thirtieth day...
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