This is something I wrote for a course on Aspects of Greek Death. I’m not sure how interesting it will be for those who haven’t studied Greek funerary ritual, however, it got fairly good marks, so you never know. I’ve used brackets to clarify certain terms.
We’ll have some better work after exams finish. For now, here’s a funeral.
Chabrais son of Lakritos was a twenty-five year old Athenian man. He had a younger brother who helped his father with their farming estate. He himself, frustrated with his father’s poor planning and management methods, chose instead to learn a craft. He worked within the city in 565 BC, about a generation after Solon’s laws came into place. Chabrais worked as a pottery maker, primarily making containers for grain, water, and other household items. It was through his work; especially though selling cinerary urns, ardanion miasma use (vase for holding water to clean “miasma,” or spiritual uncleanliness caused by corpses), and other pots; that he learned about people’s frustrations with the new funerary laws.
Lakritos came to visit Chabrais, seeming very agitated. He told Chabrais of his shock that he could not find the professional mourners he sought in the city. Chabrais stated that new laws had forbade their memorized lamentations, and even the attending of a funeral or prothesis (the laying out and mourning of a body in the home before the funeral) that was not of one’s family. Then, he asked what reason his father had for hiring mourners. Lakritos moaned, saying that his wife Melitta, Chabrais’s mother, had unexpectedly died of illness the day before.
“There is no woman to wash her, there is no woman to mourn her!”
Chabrais was shocked, but he composed himself. He knew of his father’s unreliability, so asked who was taking care of the body, and learned that it was his younger brother. His father had evidently not contacted the rest of the family.
Chabrais said, “We cannot have the body unwashed and disgraced, or the gods will certainly make our shameful situation even more difficult. The laws have limited prothesis; the ekphora (funeral procession) must begin tomorrow before sunrise! You must return and wash her, and clothe her, and then prepare offerings. Meanwhile, I will seek out my aunts and uncles and cousins, and we will have a proper mourning.”
Chabrais went to three of his extended families and brought the news to them one by one. Most promised, due to the suddenness, to come to Lakritos’s home before sunrise for the ekphora. Only one, Lakritos’s eldest brother Simon, a man dedicated to nomos (the unwritten law of the gods, as opposed to the written law of man), chose to return with Chabrais. He brought his wife and daughters, and insightfully sent his son to purchase a coffin.
The body was on a bier, washed and wrapped in linen when they arrived. As everyone settled around the body, the women began an improvised lamentation. Lakritos, prodded by Simon, began beating his chest. The rest of the men joined in, crying out and hitting their heads and chests. The woman as well, while continuing their goös (spontaneous mourning song), tore at their hair and scratched their skin. The lamentation continued late into the night.
A few hours before morning, the other families arrived. Chabrais realized that they had not hired anyone to carry the bier to the grave. Simon stated that this was not a problem; that the men of the family would do the pall-bearing. Chabrais and his brother took the back of the bier, and two of their cousins took the front. The rest of the men carried the coffin, and offerings, including a caged fowl. Some men, especially Lakritos, carried nothing. Their hands were left free for mourning.
They moved out through the city, heading towards the exit. The men led the small procession, and the women followed behind, closer to the body. Chabrais’s father stayed near the head of his wife and acted as the chief mourner, keeping the lamentation going as they walked through Athens.
They came to their family plot outside the city and the men dug a grave and then placed Melitta’s corpse inside the coffin and sealed it. They lowered the coffin in to the grave. Chabrais handed his father the offerings to place inside: flasks of oil and water, as well as the fowl, which was slaughtered and placed inside. The immediate family cut their hair and dropped locks in. They buried the coffin, and then Chabrais handed wine to his father, who poured all of it over the grave as a choē (like a libation, but the entire liquid is poured out).
The family returned to Lakritos’s home and prepared and ate a large feast, a perideipnon, in honour of his wife, where Lakritos, Chabrais, and Simon delivered eulogies to the passed wife and mother. Afterwards, Chabrais reminded his father to wash the home with seawater, and that those inside the house must wash the miasma off of themselves—each with fresh water. Then, Chabrais and the other families returned home to bathe themselves.
Well, you have officially been subjected to homework…if you got this far. This is pretty accurate to classical Greek funerary practice. As you can see, the Greeks were rather weird, and had a very specific process for dealing with their dead.