Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at ancient Roman funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Romanian funeral traditions and Ethiopian funeral traditions, among others.
Like us on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on funeral news and trends!
Preparation of the Body
If someone died at home, their family members all gathered around their bedside. Their closest relative gave the deceased a final kiss and closed the deceased’s eyes. Then, they washed the body while calling out the deceased’s name to express their grief. A family member placed a coin, known as a Charon’s obol, in the deceased’s mouth. This allowed the deceased to pay to cross the water to enter the underworld.
Ancient Roman Funeral Service
At an ancient Roman funeral, a family member said a eulogy to honor the deceased. Then, there was a ritual feast to let the deceased’s spirit know it was time to journey to the underworld. After the funeral celebrations concluded, it was time for the funeral procession to the burial location.
The funeral procession included family members and other significant people, such as mimes, musicians, and professional mourners. There also were professional actors wearing masks to represent the deceased’s ancestors.
The professional mourners were women with no relation to the deceased. They would loudly wail, scratch their face, and pull out their hair to express sorrow. Typically, the wealthier you were, the more professional mourners attended your funeral.
Cremation and Burial
After the funeral procession arrived at the burial location, they performed a sacrifice. They usually sacrificed a sow to the goddess Ceres in the presence of the body. The family also offered wine, grains, and other goods.
Cremation was originally the most common ancient Roman funeral practice during the mid-2nd century, but then burial took the lead. When cremation was common, the body went to Necropolis, the city of the dead, to be burned on a funeral pyre. Then, the remaining ashes and bones went into an urn. They believed the deceased’s spirit couldn’t enter the underworld until the cremation was complete. As for burial, the body went into a large sarcophagus with detailed decorations, and the burial location for the average person was outside of the city.
Wealthy ancient Romans had extravagant, rectangular tombs located in the city with epitaphs and multiple chambers. Sometimes, they had a memorial ceremony in one of the chambers and kept portraits and other significant items in other chambers. The burial location of Roman emperors also was in the city because they believed they turned into gods rather than spirits.
From February 13 to the 21st, there was a festival called Parentalia to honor the dead. During this nine-day celebration, families went to the cemetery to offer meals to their ancestors and share wine and cake. Families also created their own days for honoring and remembering their deceased family members.