How Did the Ancient Greeks View Burial?

The ancient Greeks make for a fascinating example of culture and tradition from two thousands years ago.  Many aspects of Greek life hold threads of similarity to our own.  In nothing, is the refinement of the Greek more clearly shown than in their reverence for the dead and in the ceremonies which surrounded burial.

Greeks often talked of burial as “the customary,” “the fitting,” or “the right.” The law of Athens required any one who chanced upon a corpse at least to cover it with earth[1]. And even if a Greek had a sever dislike of one of his countrymen while he lived, all remembrance of the feud was traditionally thrown aside when death intervened and all respect was shown the to deceased.

The general opinion of Greece strongly looked down upon anyone who showed a lack of respect of the dead. The famous scholar Socrates once made a statement, appealing in behalf of the Plataeans to the Athenians against the Thebans, saying: “It is not an equal misfortune, for the dead to be denied burial and for the living to be deprived of their country, since the former is yet more disgraceful to those that forbid the funeral rites than to those who suffer the inhumanity.”

Under any circumstances, it was seen as a moral sin to leave any dead body without a proper final resting-place; and a man who neglected to bury a parent, a relative or near friend, was deemed an outcast and unfit to live with the rest of the community.  There were even cases in which the disregard of the dead was urged as a disqualification for public office. A Greek named Philon, having been chosen senator by lot, was challenged as not worthy due to the objection against him that his mother, when she was dying, fearing that he would not attend to her funeral, left money and directions for her burial to a perfect stranger.

The law about the duty of burial in Greece was very stringent, But there were extreme cases where burial was forbidden. In cases of the most severe criminal punishments, the criminal was denied interment. Such corpses, both at Athens and Sparta, were thrown into a pit in an allotted quarter of the city, where their flesh might decay or be eaten by carrion birds. Sparta also had a pit or underground cavern, called Caeadas, in which the corpses of the worst criminal offenders were tossed

Burial was allowed the suicide, but the hand which committed the deed was chopped off and buried apart from the body. A modern scholar attributes this treatment to the fear which the Greeks had that the corpse might become a vampire; but other study suggests that the “evil” hand was considered alien to the body. As an additional punishment to the bodies of suicides, Plato recommended that they be buried without honor apart from the other dead in an uncultivated and nameless region, and that their burial place be unmarked by any marker or name.

One other quirk of Greek burial tradition was in the case of a death bu lightning strike.  Burial was denied, or at least entombment with others was refused, to those who had been killed by lightning. Greek writings explain that the ancients considered any one who was killed in that manner as struck by a god, who knew of some crime that had been hidden from mortal eye.

By Gela Painter – Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

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