How the Ancient Greek Dealt With Death

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus


I have just returned from a serious bout of pneumonia which doctors in the Evanston Hospital , said I was near death.

And they said it was my positive attitude towards life' I that kept me alive.

Frankly I was not aware of the seriousness of my illness nor that death was around the corner, but my illness has made me think about death and with all subjects I wanted to learn what the ancient Greeks said about death and dying.


I've talked with several Greek priests, reviewed three books and, of course, discussed the subject with Robert Garland, one of the world's leading authors on life in Ancient Greece.

Following is a summation of my reading on the subject:

The treatment of death and the dead divides us sharply from the mentality of the Greeks. In the modern industrialized world most people die in hospitals. If they happen to have relatives beside them when they pass away, they may count themselves lucky. As soon as they have drawn their final breath, the nurse arrives to cover up the body and pull across the plastic curtains. Most relatives and friends forego visiting in the hospital if they have not been at the bedside earlier. Very few have any physical contact with the corpse. The hospital authorities then transfer the corpse into the hands of the professional undertakers. In Britain the deceased will never be seen again, since open caskets are extremely rare.

In the United States the deceased, thanks to the fashioning hands of the undertaker, will reappear in a completely transformed state when it goes on view in the so-called funeral home.

In the Greek world death was prevalent among persons of all age groups, whether as a result of warfare, illness or, in the case of women, as a consequence of giving birth. It was incorporated into the life of the community to a degree that strike many people today as morbid. In modern Greece, too, the business of the undertaker is not conducted behind heavily shrouded windows in subdued surroundings but under the full glare of arc lighting.


Different cultures permit degrees of physical contact with their dead. Some accept the physical aspect of death as a natural and intimate fact of life. Others are deeply troubled by the idea of a "rotting" corpse. Many people today regard the corpse as an object to shun and avoid.

Since there were no hospitals in Greeee, most people died either at home or on the battlefield. If death occurred at home, it was the duty of the relatives to prepare the body for burial. Fondling and kissing were acceptable and customary practices. The Greeks were hardly more intimate with their deceased than their modern counterparts at a Greek Orthodox funeral, which literally means a "caring for" still in regular use.

Though we occasionally hear of undertakers known as klimakophoroi or "ladder bearers," nekrophoroi or "corpse bearers' and tapheis or "buriers," the duty of these hired hands consisted merely in transporting the corpse from the house to the grave and preparing the ground for burial. They were not
for the most part specialists but merely odd-job men. Nor did they attend to the corpse's needs prior to its departure from the house, as modern undertakers do. Everything suggests that the Greeks would have regarded the idea of handing over the corpse of a dead relative to strangers as offensive and incomprehensible.

This attitude had much to do with the belief that in the period between death and burial the deceased are in need of the solicitous attention of their relatives. Until inhumation of cremation has taken place, they were thought to be in what anthropologists describe as "liminal" stage--a word which derives from the Latin word for "threshold."

They were between two worlds, having not yet fully disengaged from this world and awaiting incorporation into the next. Into Hades, the world of the dead, did not occur, automatically but by the consequence of strenuous activity on the part of the living. This betwixt and between status were regarded perilous, for which reason the unburied dead were believed to be at considerable risk. The primary obligation upon the living was thus to perform a burial as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. To fail in this sacred duty was to condemn the dead to wander up and down the banks of the River Styx, which surrounded Hades, for thousands of years. Thus when Achilles delays burying Patrokos' corpse because of overwhelming grief, his ghost appears to Achilles and urgendy requests that he bury him "as soon as possible, so that I can enter the gates of Hades."

Unlike our culture, which encourages us to present a stiff upper lip in the face of loss, " Greek culture not only tolerated but also expected highly demonstrative manifestations of grief. There are frequent references in literature to men and women tearing out their hair, rending, their garments, beating and lacerating their breasts, rolling on the ground and wallowing in the dust, and going without food or drink for several days.

This kind of behavior was prompted in part by a desire to honor the deceased, believed to take pleasure in witnessing the exaggerated displays of grief that their death occasioned.

Homer tells us that when the Greeks were cremating the body of Payttroklos, not everyone was grieving for the deceased. Some were using his death as a pretext to bewail their own private losses and griefs.

To a Greek there was nothing hypocritical or insincere in such outpourings. The loss of a loved one is common to all human experience and Greek mourners brought to the " funeral their own personal sense of life's pain.

Finally I end this essay with a quote from Omar Khayyam's" "RUBAIYAT," my favorite poet:

"And if the Cup you drink, the, Lip you press, End in what All , begins and ends in- Yes; Imagine, than you are what heretofore You were -hereafter you shall not be less."




(Posting date 13 September 2006)

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