Ancient Funeral Rites: Roman Funerals

River Styx

There is proof that humans have given enough thought to their dead to perform established procedures, rites and rituals going back as far to the Neanderthals. Perhaps archeologists will uncover our beginnings to reveal that funeral practices date even further beyond what was once thought to be out of the realm of early human capabilities.

How intrinsic is the custom of the funeral rite for humans? The answer to that question may never be fully understood, but you can explore its history through records, evidence and the remaining burial sites that have survived all over the world.

This series will explore a few of the well-known civilizations and lesser -known from around the world. There are likely to be great differences in the details of rituals, but perhaps the thread that links all peoples together is the basic need to mourn and respect loved ones who have passed from their daily lives. Overall, it appears that a sense of community is one of the greatest tools to help overcome grief and loss.

Romans

Like modern western societies, the Romans also practiced burying, embalming, or cremating their dead, although the latter grew more common during the Republic’s last century of power. And — as with modern families — the preference of funeral procedure was entirely at their discretion. However, there were certain basic elements of funeral customs that were followed, based on the beliefs of the times.

A typical example of funeral preparation was for relatives to close the eyes of the deceased while calling his or her name. Perhaps this was done in case the spirit of the deceased had strayed or become lost. Then, the body would be washed and dressed in the best clothing the departed owned. A coin was placed in their mouth as toll for Charon to ferry them across the river Styx into the underworld. This payment was very important to the deceased’s journey through the afterlife. Without it, they would be forced to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.

For the Romans, as well as many other cultures in ancient times, the underworld was not exclusively a place of eternal suffering. It was simply a passage everyone was required to make after death. This passage entailed five regions, the last of which was Elysium, a place of bliss and joy for poets and artists, the brave and all who had acted selflessly to benefit mankind.

For the upper-class, the wake could last as long as eight days; thereafter, they would be taken in a night time procession led by musicians and followed by family members, friends and mourners who carried the death masks or portraits of other deceased family members. The procession ended at a necropolis (or graveyard, in modern terms), always located outside the city. Once there, offerings of wine and food were made to their loved-ones to take on their journey to the underworld. Then, the body was either interred or cremated near the burial site. The ashes were then gathered by a family member who placed them into an urn for burial.

But, for lower-class Roman citizens, funerals often were less elaborate. Typically, the deceased were cremated the next day without an elaborate procession. To help insure a proper burial of some kind, most Roman citizens belonged to a funeral society called collegia funeraticia. These groups were formed as a kind of insurance and funded primarily by the pooled resources of the working class. However, there were some emperors who contributed to this fund, such as Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. The urns were then placed into a columbaria, a vast underground vault where niches were often owned by the family of the deceased.

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