Greek Death Ritual

Olympian religion was a public religion, whose main function was to integrate the individual into the community. “Funeral rites, and other rituals as well, strengthen social ties and reinforce the social structure of a group by calling forth feelings of togetherness and social solidarity”(Rehm,105). Death ritual in Greece varied through time and place, but some of the recurring features include: gifts to the dead, sacrifices at the grave, a banquet at the grave-site, a tomb marker (sema), and group mourning.

Consisting of the laying out and mourning over the body, followed by a graveside meal and offerings and, sometimes, cremation, the funeral allowed the community to reaffirm its structure and beliefs. The funeral ritual was a very dramatic scene involving “choral lament, weeping, rhythmic movement, and the cortege” (Danford, 107), brought together the family and the larger community: “they can define the social impact of a death and place the dead person and the survivors”(Danford, 107). The reactions and requirements of men and women differed throughout the funeral procession.

The men entered from the right with their right arm raised which contrasts sharply with the “wild ecstasy of the women”(Alexiou, 7), who stand in varying attitudes and postures around the grave site. “The chief mourner usually clasps the head of the dead man with both hands, while the others may try to touch his hand, their own right hand stretched over him. Most frequently both hands are raised above the head, sometimes beating the head and visibly pulling at their loosed hair ” (Alexiou, 6).

One painting actually shows the hair coming out. The violent tearing of the hair, face, and clothes were not just acts of uncontrolled grief, but “part of the ritual indispensable to lamentation involved movement as well as wailing and singing”(Alexiou, 6). Objects associated with the transition from life to death reveal much about the ancient world. The primary mourner “dedicated a lock of hair, together with choai, a libation of wine, oils, and perfumes.

These were always accompanied by a prayer. Then came the enagismata, or offerings to the dead, which included milk, honey, water, wine, celery, pelanos (a mixture of meal, honey, and oil), and kollyba (the first-fruits of the crops and dried along with fresh fruits”(Alexiou, 8). Grave gifts, including pottery, jewelry, and glassware (at death, a prosperous family might bury all its glassware with the deceased and start over), eased the transition into the afterlife and provided nourishment there.

Many grave gifts were decorated with scenes of warriors, establishing the heroic nature of the deceased as well as the family rank and lineage (Danford, 105). Gravestones often depict emotional scenes of loss and farewell. Animal sacrifice was also a very common practice in Greek ritual and particularly death ritual. “Even after bull-sacrifice had been forbidden… it was usual to sacrifice animals — sheep, lambs, kids, birds and fowl — ‘according to ancestral custom'” (Alexiou, 8).

The scene of sacrifice was gory and provocative where “all victims were killed over the eschara (trench) so that the blood might run into the earth to appease the souls of the dead” (Alexiou, 8). Like their gods, the people believed that the dead also needed certain necessities fulfilled in the afterlife or else they would retaliate towards the living. Offerings at the tomb were made on the “third, ninth, and thirtieth days, after one year, and on certain festivities, to propitiate the spirits of the dead”(Alexiou, 6).

Besides food and drink, offerings might include “auloi, lyres, ribbons, garlands, and robes, as well as torches and lamps which were kept alight on the graves” (Alexiou,8). Greek religious experiences also played a large role with the communication between the living and the dead. Eleusis, the location of the cult of the goddess Demeter, existed for many centuries and was home to the most famous religious festival: the Eleusinian mysteries. The religion and its rituals were originally local, but eventually became highly epichoric as the practice became widespread.

The participants in the ritualistic religion sought a spiritual high by attaining a state of ecstasy through mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. The ancient Greek practice of funeral and death ritual has been very important to the history of the culture and the practice is continued today. Although much has changed over the centuries, there are still many practices which have been upheld. Religion and the communication with the dead have maintaned high priority in greek culture and tradition.