disposal of dead

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Correct disposal of the dead was a crucial element in easing the soul of the deceased into the next world. However, the forms of burial varied enormously. Great significance was attached to the choice of inhumation, cremation, or some other rite, but one can rarely see a direct correlation between specific methods and specific racial, social, or religious groups.


After the destruction of the Mycenaean world c.1200 bc, regional variations returned in the Dark Age. There were, however, a few generally observed rules. Cremation with the ashes placed in a metal urn (usually bronze), in the Homeric style, tended to be associated with warrior burials throughout antiquity. Children were rarely cremated, and in most places infants were buried inside amphoras or storage pots. Starting in the 6th cent. there was a trend towards simpler burials, which may have been accompanied by sumptuary laws. Inhumation in pit‐graves or tile graves was adopted for adults in most parts of Greece by the 6th or 5th cent.

Rich grave goods and elaborate tomb markers went out of fashion everywhere for most of the 5th cent., but returned c.425. There was a great flowering of funerary sculpture at Athens in the 4th cent. Funerary spending rose still further after 300, and in the 3rd–1st cents. the massive ‘Macedonian’‐style vaulted tombs, often with painted interiors, are found all over Greece. The most spectacular of these are the late 4th‐cent. royal tombs, possibly of Philip II and his court, at Vergina in Macedonia (see aegae). Athens was an exception to this pattern. Cicero says that Demetrius 1 of Phaleron banned lavish tombs, probably in 317, and indeed no monumental burials are known from Attica between then and the 1st cent. bc. In Roman times inhumation was the strict rule throughout the whole Greek east.


Few burials are known from republican times, suggesting that rites were so simple as to leave few archaeological traces. By the 3rd cent. bc some of the rich were being cremated with their ashes placed in urns and buried in communal tombs. By the 1st cent., cremation was the norm, and acc. to Cicero and Pliny the Elder even the ultra‐conservative Cornēliī gave up inhumation in 78 bc. At about the same time, Roman nobles began building elaborate tombs modelled on those of the Greek east, with monumental sculptures and elaborate stone architecture. The spiralling cost of élite tombs ended abruptly under Aug‐ustus, who built himself a vast mausoleum. Other nobles were careful to avoid being seen as trying to rival the splendour of the imperial household (but see Cestius Epulo). Simpler tombs, organized around modest altars, came into fashion for the very rich, while the not‐quite‐so‐rich and the growing number of funerary clubs (see clubs, roman) adopted the columbarium (2).

See further art, funerary, greek and roman; cemeteries; death, attitudes to.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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