Funeral rites

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File:Funerary monument capitoline museum.jpg
Roman funerary monument in the Capitoline museum, Rome.
The funeral rite called upon the Manes, spirits of the holy dead, to accept the recently deceased among their company. Eight days afterward the family held a feast at the tomb where the deceased was invited to attend as a family Lar. The anniversary of this second ceremony was then celebrated each year as a dies natalis, or birthday of the deceased into his or her new life.

The body of the deceased was washed and dressed in a rite that in some ways paralleled the care given an infant at birth. On the other hand, the person was also prepared as though going on a journeyThe Religio Romana centered on the domestic cultus of the Di Manes as Lares, those deceased members of the family who continued to watch over and benefit their living relatives. For his idealized state religion, Cicero simply said, "let them treat their dead family members as divine."[1]

"Marcus Varro, as one example (of those buried in a terracotta coffin), was placed in leaves of myrtle, olive and black poplar after the Pythagorean fashion." [2]

File:Tomb of Bibulus.jpg
Tomb of C. Publicius Bibulus, Rome.
Represented in Varro's burial rite were Venus (myrtle), Minerva (olive), and Hercules (poplar) (Pliny NH 12.3). While the body dies and is recycled into Nature, the individual's spirit, or mind, continued to live on. Thus Minerva was seen as a Goddess who overcomes death. The spirit lives on in an idyllic paradise filled with fragrant flowers that are associated with Venus in springtime. Depictions of the Manes as Cupids, or of Cupid leading the souls of the dead, represents souls as children of Venus living in a beautiful land entirely imbued with Her spirit. Hercules appears as a mortal who achieved divinity and immortality, and thus as a figure who showed the way for all mortals to attain immortality. The symbolism here, and the mythology upon which it was based, for Varro, came more from the philosophical schools than from traditional funerary practice.

Burial and Cremation


Roman philosophers recorded their thoughts towards death. Keep in mind though that those Roman opinions that have come down to us came from only the higher class of Roman society, though not the highest, and these do not really express popular beliefs. In fact some were specifically offered to contrast with the views of the "vulgar masses." Then, too, what has filtered down to us were ancient texts that were seen, for one reason or another, as agreeing with the views of the Christian copyists who preserved select writings over others. But none the less it may be worth looking at some philosophical comments in a separate post(s).

Such philosophical expressions do not play a role in traditional funeral rites. Eulogies offered a record of a person's deeds as a way of reminding mourners about the life lost to them, but with the sentiment that they would still benefit, now that the deceased would pass on to become one of their Lares. Traditional rites, the funus translaticum, from the moment of death until the family banquet eight days after the funeral, dealt more with the family's transition of accepting the deceased as a Lar.

At the Death Bed and Preparation of the Body

Tomb of Eurysaces, Porta Praenestina, Rome.
When the time of death approaches, the family gathers around the person's death bed. A father would stand at the head of the bed, a mother at the foot. Otherwise, the closest male relatives would gather at the head of the bed, while female members stood at the foot of the bed. These relative positions represent the transition that was to take place, the male members representing the care of the patrimony in this life, while the female family members represent Mother Earth and the ancestors who will receive the deceased into the next life. This symbolism is retained later as the deceased is displayed in the atrium with his feet towards the door, and then carried from the house feet first, as though beginning his journey. Since he is to be born into a new life, in that life he will come once more under the care and guidance of the female members of his ancestors first, just as though he were a child. So women are always placed as associated with the place that will receive the departed in a loving embrace.

At the time of death the nearest relative is to administer the final kiss, the ultima oscula, that catches the soul (Seneca as Marcian 3.2). He then closes the eyes, oculus premere (Virgil Aeneis IX 486-7). The name of the deceased is then called out three times in the conclamatio, which will be repeated at different times through the coming rites (Servius ad Aen. VI 218; Lucan 2.21-3).

Traditionally the body is then placed on the ground where it meets with the earth, deponere (Ovid Pont. 2.2.45). Symbolically this represented the return to Mother Earth. For this reason, too, the body of the deceased should be prepared in the simplest available fashion for a return from whence it came.

The body is next washed and anointed (Virgil Aen. VI 219). Pure water that flows from nearby springs or streams is used for this purpose. Like the Jewish tradition, cleansing of the body should be performed by family members as it becomes a way to aid the family through its transition.

The orifices of the deceased are plugged to retain his fluids before being dressed in a toga if a citizen (Martial IX 57.8; Juvenal III 171-2) or in purple robes if a priest, then crowned with a wreath (Cicero Leg. II 24.60). This is how he would be shown during the allotted days of mourning. For his funeral service, however, the deceased is then dressed in a simple fashion, in a manner of one preparing to take a journey. Other parts of the rituals will likewise evoke the "journey" of the deceased, whether in his last meal with the family before burial or cremation, and also with the food and drink that was generally offered into the grave. Such victuals were nothing elaborate but instead what any Roman might bring along with him on a day's journey.

In his mouth, beneath the tongue is placed a silver coin to pay to Charon (Juvenal III 267). If buried the coin will remain. If cremated, the coin is first removed, lest it should melt, and then added into the urn that holds his ashes. Often a coin was given to the person when an infant for just this purpose.

The body was then placed on a grand bed in the atrium for viewing during the collocatio (Persius III 103-5). His feet face the door. Four torches are placed around the bed, two at the head and two at the feet, while candelabras flank these torches. Garlands made of flowers, especially roses, mixed with fruit and seashells to represent the Blessed Isles, are placed around and over the bed. The deceased was crowned with a wreath of flowers, or else, if he had earned some special honor in life, he would wear a fitting wreath.

The deceased remained in this state while family and friends would come to pay their respects, as though he still lay on his death bed. His immediate family would therefore not leave the house. This is similar to the Jewish shiva except that it would come before the funeral rather than after. It is a time of inner mourning, to prepare oneself for the funeral that is to follow.

The pompa funeris

A funeral procession was led by a nuntio or praeco, heralding others to attend. Before him would come musicians – four pipers, a trumpeter and two cornicines. The number of musicians was generally restricted, although with emperors the number could become excessive.[3]

Behind would come the praeficae or professional mourners. These, like others employed for funerals, were public slaves hired through the temple of Libitina. Next would come the torchbearers leading the bier of the deceased. Funerals were generally conducted at night, except for some emperors. Even the popular imperial heir, Germanicus, had his funeral held in the Campus Martius under torchlights brought by the swelled masses that crowded the streets that night. [4]

This was to change, however, and only the funeral processions for children were conducted at night. [5]

The deceased, was carried on his bier by vespillones, who normally numbered four (Martialis, Epigrammata 8.75.9). For the wealthy with a larger bier (feretrum) and couch, as many as eight vespillones could bear the fertrum. These would be led by the dissignator to coordinate their movements. The vespillones could be the deceased's nearest male family members, or his male friends. A good portion of the time they were his or her clients, former slaves freed by the deceased. (Persius 3.105-106).

The family followed, led by a boy who carried a palm and basket. Two women flanked him, one holding a spade-like instrument. Then would come those family members who were wearing masks of ancestors whose build and gait they imitated. In later times busts were carried rather than death masks (Tacitus, Annales 4.9). The rest of the family would follow in mourning garb, the black lugubria. Younger members were carried in litters (Tacitus, Hist. 3.67). Sons came with their heads veiled, while daughters went with uncovered heads and hair unbound. This was observed to be "because fathers should be honored as Gods by their male offspring, but mourned as dead by their daughters, that custom has assigned to each sex its proper part and has produced a fitting result from both (Plutarch, Roman Questions 14)." Men who held office did not wear their insignia in the pompa funeris. For the funeral procession of an Emperor, soldiers did wear their armor.

A pompa funeris shared some things with other forms of pompae, but its arrangement was unique. Perhaps this was due as Plutarch said that "the unusual is proper for mourning." The pompa funeris, during the Republic at least, were at night rather than during the day. They moved from the home of the deceased to his tomb outside the City. The arrangement of the different participants, although similar in a general way, were just the opposite in a pompa funeris with regard to the placement of performers, and also with regard to social ranks. The honored deceased was placed closer to the front of the pompa funeris that would be for the triumphator, or for the image of a feted Gods. So although the same, the pompa funeris was different

See also


  1. Cicero De Legibus II 22
  2. Plinius Secundus Historia Naturalis 25.160
  3. Seneca Apocolocyntosis 12
  4. Tacitus Annales 3.5
  5. Servius, Ad Aeneis 6.224

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