The term funeral came from the Latin word funus which had different meanings, including the funerary rites and the corpse themselves. To define the term, funerals are ceremonies for remembering, sanctifying, respecting or celebrating the life of a deceased person. Funerary customs comprise of different practices and beliefs. These vary between religious groups and between cultures.
Funerals include a ritual which can involve preservation of the body or destruction of the body depending on the religion or culture. Differing beliefs about the relationship between soul and body mean that funerary practices that are acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in other cultures.
Funeral rites started 300,000 years ago, pre-dating the modern Homo sapiens. Archeologists have discovered Neanderthal skeletons with layers of flower pollens in Pontnewydd Cave in Wales and in Shanidar Cave in Iraq. This deliberate reverence and burial given to the deceased suggested that Neanderthals had religious beliefs.
Rites in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greeks considered death as the gateway to the afterlife. Funeral rites were important rite of passage in order to help the deceased on his way. It was believed that remembrance of the dead people ensured immortality. The children of the deceased were responsible for taking care of the funeral arrangements. Grecian customs were described in poetry, plays, legal and philosophical treatises.
There were three stages in the rites proceedings: prothesis (laying-out), ekphora (procession) and burial. It was the women’s work to lay out. They washed, poured aromatic oil and clothed the body. Then, they placed the body on a high bed inside the house.
They added jewelry for noblewomen and armors for soldiers. The corpses had coins under their tongues as a payment for the passage to the underworld. Friends and family members came to mourn, often hiring musicians to start the lamentation. The body was then brought to the cemetery in processions which usually began before dawn.
At the burial sites, the ashes or bodies were put in a pit. There were offerings of gifts, food or a sacrifice. The men stayed to build an inscribed or painted monuments. The women prepared a feast. It was believed that women of Classical Athens regularly visited to the grave with offerings such as libations and small cakes.
In ancient Greece, lamentation fulfilled the social need to contain and express grief. Greeks believed that lamentation was a time for moving on. It was considered a significant element in religious rites. It proclaimed the glory or virtue of the deceased. It started during the Geometric period, when people decorated vases with scenes showing the deceased surrounded by mourners.
Ancient Greeks believed that a burial is a part of the cycle of life and a rite of passage. They venerated the remains and tombs of dead heroes with annual festivals. Kharon, the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, only accepted those cremated or buried with formal rites. Those that had no formal rites were denied peace.
Tombs symbolized lineage and social status. An elaborate funeral represented great honor. It was reserved for women dying in childbirth and for heroes. However, excessive ostentation and pomp were banned. It was prohibited to exploit funerals for political purposes. Failure to perform rites, speaking ill of the deceased and telling lies about them were all considered a criminal act.
Most of the finest grave monuments were erected in a cemetery in Kerameikos, an area of Athens located at the northwest Acropolis. This cemetery was in use for several centuries. Athenian families started to bury their deceased relatives in simple stone sarcophagi at the end of the 5th B.C.
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