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 Greek funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Malawi Chewa funeral traditions and Día de los Muertos, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Importance of Ancient Greek Funeral Rituals
An ancient Greek funeral was an important ritual for the transition from life to death. Performing the rituals helped ensure that the deceased had a peaceful journey to the afterlife. If they performed the rituals wrong, then the deceased went to the underworld. Many people feared death because they didn’t want to end up in the underworld.
The funeral also was a time for people to show their family pride, strength, wealth, and status. The proper burial rituals included three parts: prothesis, ekphora, and perideipnon.
Part One of Burial: Prothesis (Preparation of the Body)
When someone died, they believed that the spirit left the body right away. They placed the body on a pier in their home after washing, oiling, and dressing the deceased. Typically, females washed the body. They dressed the deceased in clothing for their status, such as armor for a soldier or a wedding dress for a recently married woman.
They also supported the head so the jaw wouldn’t sag and had their feet facing the door. To pay for the ferry toll during their afterlife journey, they placed gold coins on their eyes or mouth.
Part Two: Ekphora (Burial or Cremation)
Ekphora is the funeral procession to the cemetery for the burial or cremation, and everyone openly grieved during this time. The funeral procession was at night, and they made stops along the way to bring mourners along for a larger crowd to honor the deceased. There also were usually some musicians and singers who came along. The procession either had a horse-drawn carriage or pallbearers to carry the deceased.
The deceased was put inside a small elaborately designed box to either cremate on the funeral pyre and bury in a grave. They marked their loved one’s grave with an elaborate tomb and statues. Not a lot of objects were inside the grave, but they put vases, statues, and other mementos around the tomb so the deceased wasn’t forgotten.
Part Three: Perideipnon (Post-Funeral Party)
After the burial, they had a funeral party with a feast at the deceased’s home. They also gathered for celebrations 3 days, 9 days, 30 days, and 365 days after their loved one’s death. Women took small cakes, wine, jewelry, perfumes, or other offerings to their loved one’s grave to make their afterlife journey easier.
Check out this blog post to learn about modern-day Greek funeral traditions!