Burial Customs

The prothesis, the lamentation, the ekphora and interment

In the historical period the funerary ritual (kedeia) included three main stages, known from the description of Patroklos’ funeral in Homer’s Iliad and from depictions in art: the prothesis, or laying out of the dead body; the ekphora, or funerary procession; and the interment.

The prosthesis

The prothesis – that is, the laying out of the dead body – took place inside the house and lasted for one day. The deceased was placed on a bed with his feet pointing towards the exit of the house and his head uncovered. When necessary, the deceased’s lower jaw was tied with strips of leather or cloth, known as the othonai or othonia, which kept it from dropping in an unsightly manner. In the Odyssey (Book 11, 481-483), Agamemnon refers to Klytaimnestra and complains:

…ἡ δὲ κυνῶπις
νοσφίσατ᾿, οὐδέ μοι ἔτλη ἰόντι περ εἰς Ἀίδαο
χερσὶ κατ᾿ ὀφθαλμοὺς ἑλέειν σύν τε στόμ᾿ ἐρεῖσαι
But she, that whore, she turned her back on me,
well on my way to Death–she even lacked the heart to seal my eyes with her hand or close my jaws.
(Translation by Robert Fagles)

The ekphora and interment

The ekphora, or ritual procession of the deceased’s body from where it had been laid out to the place of burial, took place on the third day after death. It is depicted already in Geometric vase painting, albeit less frequently that the prothesis. The body was placed on a cart and was accompanied by mourners and men, often armed. A unique terracotta model of an ekphora, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, features a small bird on the coffin, possibly a representation of the deceased’s soul, and a cover over the bed, which can be lifted like a lid to reveal the body. Two Black-figure kantharoi dating to 510-500 BC, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, depict the ekphora in great detail: one shows the body borne by hand; the other on a cart pulled by mules.

According to Solon’s legislation, the procession towards the cemetery had to follow secondary roads, be quiet, and exit the city before sunrise. The men went first, the women followed. The clothing of the women following behind the funeral procession was also regulated.The actual interment is rarely depicted. A loutrophoros by the Sappho painter in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens features a rare scene, in which the men who prepare to catch the coffin in their raised hands and place it inside the grave are clearly visible. Because of their fragile material, funerary beds and coffins are rarely preserved. The fragmentary wooden coffin from a tomb at Aigaleo (late fifth/early fourth century BC), now on display in the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, is a rare find. Usually, wooden beds disintegrate entirely except for the nails and decorative elements made of terracotta and bone, like those from the tombs of Pieria on display here, or gilt bone, like the famous decoration of the bed from the ‘Tomb of Philip’ at Vergina.

On the other hand, the use of stone or marble for the manufacture of sarcophagi and ossuaries, which appeared as early as the seventh century BC, allowed for their excellent preservation as in the case of the marble ossuary in the Canellopoulos Museum with its rich decoration of relief figures and floral motifs.

Despite the scantiness of available information concerning the interment, we know with certainty that libations for the deceased and the gods of the Underworld were performed after the tomb was covered over, and we can assume that words or some kind of prayer were spoken. In some instances, bottomless clay vases were placed over or next to the tomb – the absence of a bottom ensured that they did not collect rainwater and that the libations that were poured into them seeped directly into the soil.

The funerary ritual ended with the perideipnon, a feast held in the house of the deceased or a close relative. After the funeral offerings were made at the tomb at specific intervals, of which the trita (third day) and enata (ninth day) were the most important, as were the triakostia (thirtieth day), when mourning period officially ended.

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