Brief Overview of Classical Greek Funerary Rites
Funerary rites and ritual are an integral part of Classical Greek life. John Oakley writes, “Indeed, death to the Ancient Greeks was a sudden process but a gradual one, with the spirit remaining for a time in a state of flux while the living performed various rituals to endure a successful transition” (2004. Picturing Death in Classical Athens, p. 11). Much of the realistic evidence known about Attic burial customs comes from archaeological and iconographic rather than literary evidence. Images on ceramics, such as those on polychrome white ground lekythoi then provide important visual records to enhance information given by both archaeological and literary evidence.
The primary responsibility for carrying out funerary rites falls onto the immediate family of the deceased. The first stage is the prothesis, or funerary wake, during which it is the duty of women to prepare the body for burial. The prothesis occurs the day after death and typically lasts one day with the purpose of confirming the death. It additionally serves to provide opportunities for lamentation, mourning, and for relatives to arrive for the procession.
On day three, the ekphora, or funerary procession, occurs, which often begins before sunrise. Unfortunately, there are very few iconographic representations of ekphorai, but what we do have depicts the deceased body covered with a shroud except for his or her head and is carried or drawn by a cart (cf. Kurtz, D., and J. Boardman. 1971. Greek Burial Customs, Cornell University Press, p. 145). These representations show men leading the procession and women following behind. After the procession, the body is interred. According to Cicero, the purpose of the funeral, coming from the time of Kekrops, the first king of Athens, is “to sow the earth with the fruits of its bounty (frugibus obserebatur), assuring the dead a quiet repose, and, at the same time, purifying the land, thereby returning it to the use of the living.” To achieve the purification stemming from the miasma of death, a water libation is poured near the grave. Deposits of libation cups near graves document this action. Later on the same day, mourners venture back to the home of the deceased to purify not only themselves, but also the house. It is thought that the eidolon, or psyche/soul, of the deceased continues to wander, neither in the realm of the living nor the realm of the dead until proper burial.
The perideipnon, occurring not long after the ekphora, is in many ways the equivalent of modern memorial celebrations and eulogies. The end of mourning arrives approximately one month after the death, signaling a return to normal life. Annual celebrations frequently continue after the mourning period. These events entail visiting the graves of the deceased to place flowers, garlands, ribbons, and wreaths.