Death and the mortuary practices of antiquity are mainly examined through the lens of archaeological material evidence. From excavation we can infer the processes behind belief and rituals to some extent, often supplemented by written records of the time. However, death is surrounded by notions and concepts that are simply not tangible, illustrated by fantastical myths and notions of what ‘the afterlife’ is believed to be. Death, by its nature, is an event that is closely linked to emotional reaction. Therefore, it can be assumed that logic may not have always been at the forefront of mortuary behaviour, resulting in practices that can be somewhat contradictory and difficult to generalise. Despite this, groups have visible differences in belief and burial practice. In this essay I intend to highlight the mortuary beliefs and burial practices in Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, England and Ireland to explore how pagans and Christians were alike and how they differed from one another.
Among the most striking characteristics of classical pagan religion, is the acceptance of all manner of deities and customs. The fluidity present to adopt and assimilate ‘‘foreign’ beliefs reflects not only on the long-reaching nature of the Roman Empire, but the mindset of Roman citizens as a whole. These ‘foreign’ influences constituted various neighbouring peoples such as the Etruscans, Gauls and Latins, but notably the Greeks through Magna Graecia. (Hyde 1946, p157) To observe the extent of Greek influence in Roman religion, you need only look to the clear parallels between their deities; Jupiter represented Zeus, Mars stood in place of Ares and most importantly in this context, the Roman version of Hades was Pluton. His realm was believed to be the inevitable destination of all and there were no distinctions between good or evil in death, a concept that greatly differs from Christian beliefs of the later periods. Hades housed the souls of the dead who were believed to have lost their wit and sense of consciousness, a result of drinking from the waters of Lethe. (Hyde 1946) Thus, there was no concept of heaven verses hell in the Greek and Roman ideas of afterlife, it was merely an afterlife.
However, religion in Ancient Rome was contradictory in nature. As Hyde illustrates, “For the Roman, religion had no place at death, since the dying man had no reckoning to make with heaven .” (Hyde 1946, p158) Yet, while religion seemingly had no place for the dead, it appears that it did for the living in some regard. An overarching theme present in both Rome and Greece is that of purity and purification, which was put at risk by the presence of those departed. This is reflected in burial, as at Rome, pits were dug at the foundations of cities and capped with a ‘Manes Stone,’ that was lifted three times a year on sacred days. These days were deemed unlucky and it was believed that Manes could reappear during this time. It can be suggested that the stones in burials served to stay the dead spirits. To prevent the dead from lingering, proper mortuary rituals were observed and offerings were given. The Roman mourning period lasted nine days included ritual feasting. Though funerals were largely a private affair, there was a public holiday in honour of the Manes called Parentalia held from the 13th to the 21st of February. Not only was there a fear of the souls lingering where they were unwanted, but the bodies themselves were deemed impure. (Hyde 1946; Morris 1992)
Similarly, in Greece it can be said that the dead were marginal in society, expressed by their attitudes and replacement of previous burials, particularly in the Late Helladic period. (Kurtz, Boardman 1971) Strangely, this is in direct contrast to the meticulous, ritualistic treatment of the dead at the time of their burial and seemed only acceptable after the body had decayed. It suggests that the fear that spurred such treatment at the time of death was no longer an issue after a certain period, perhaps best expressed in the words of Garland, “Death is fully consummated when decomposition has ended.” (Garland 1985, p39) As with Rome, there were beliefs regarding the pollution death caused. The degree of contagiousness varied from polis to polis. Rules drawn up 400 BC by priests of Labyadai, Delphi state pollution to be a danger until the thigana was closed. Interestingly, the fear of pollution was not universal throughout the Greek World. Lykourgos of Sparta permitted burial inside the city and allowed grave markers near sacred places. (Garland 1985; Kurtz, Boardman 1971) Overall, it seemed rituals were key in both Rome and Greece to combat pollution and held greater importance than belief.
The fear of pollution can be illustrated, by the fact that burial in Greece and Rome normally took place outside the city walls, with the exception of children. Despite the end of adult intramural burial in Athens c.500 BC, child cremations and urn burials continued near homes, suggesting that there was less danger regarding them.(Kurtz, Boardman 1971, p188-190) Ritual preparation for burial included washing the body and hanging symbols of death, such as cypress near the door. Visitors purified themselves upon entering the home with a bowl of water, and the house was similarly purified using sea-water following the funeral. (Garland 1985) In Rome, rites were conducted for those who were lost at sea, an empty tomb would be erected in their memory. The gravitas of burial is best expressed through punishments received for not adhering to the practice, which included sacrificing a sow annually and branding the offending family to be tainted by death. Even in the case of cremation, a finger would be cut off and buried before the body was burned. (Heller 1932) In preparation for burial, the body would be washed with water, dressed in accordance with their status and laid out on a funeral couch, a coverlet placed over them. A coin was put in their mouth to pay Charon on their journey across the river Styx. The importance of burial led to the formation of Funeral Societies, where people paid to ensure a burial place for their ashes and the creation of the Columbarium. On the other hand, the poor were often buried in aforementioned pits (puticuli).
A key turning point for Rome was during the fourth century, when beliefs of death and the afterlife begin to shift. The ‘Edict of Tolerance’ was issued in 313 AD by Emperor Constantine, and Christianity gradually imposed itself as the one and only religion, a monotheistic religion, a sharp contrast to the assimilating nature of pagan Rome. (Ferri 2015, p117)Despite this, it is possible to draw some similarities of belief in regards to burial. Burial places had long been protected from violation in Rome by various laws due to their significance. One inscription from the time of Augustus prohibits their destruction as it was an obligation to bury the dead. There was renewed legislation against the destruction of burial places with the rise of Christianity. In 386 AD, an edict was issued denouncing thieves of relics. (Mark 1997, p40) Any violation of tombs in the fourth century was considered a severe crime and those found guilty were held in the same regard as murderers. Similarly, there was a continuation of early Roman law, that burials should be placed outside the city walls as evidenced from an edict in 381: “All bodies that are contained in urns or sarcophagi and are kept above ground shall be carried and placed outside the city.” (Mark 1997, p40 ) Burial between these groups may not have initially been separate, as under Roman law there was no reason why members of these two groups could not share a tomb. In the case of collegia funeratica, it is worth noting that an owner could not be excluded on the basis of his beliefs. Often, family members were buried in ‘family’ burial places and it is from these areas that the Christian cemeteries developed over time. Although the church was able to control their own cemeteries from the third century on, it is possible, according to Johnson, that mixed burials still took place.
There is little revealed from the synods regarding Christian mortuary beliefs and customs in Rome. The Apostolic Constitutions, describe the mourning period for the deceased, outlining that the third, ninth and thirtieth day after death should be marked. (Mark 1997) This practice is a clear echo of pagan traditions, not unlike other customs practised by Christians at this time. Additionally, The Synod of Elvira, issued two canons that deal with mortuary practices. One prohibited the lighting of candles at burial grounds during the day as it was believed to disturb the dead, while the other barred women from spending a night at a cemetery. (Mark 1997, p43) An important source for understanding early Christian funerary customs can be found in Augustine’s writings. He reveals that leaving offerings for the dead continued in mortuary practice for a time. He mentions Monica, who had been about to make such an offering, before learning that it was forbidden due to its close resemblance to pagan rites regarding the dead. The late date indicates that pagan traditions still held so strong, that the church had to actively differentiate their practices, to the extent that funerary feasts were also barred. (Mark 1997, p47)Therefore, though elements of pagan tradition can be traced in Christian practices, a visible effort was made to separate them. In burial, this can be observed with the rise in inhumations. Christians were largely against the practice of cremation, preferring inhumation from the second century onwards, though the practice was later abandoned by pagans and had largely vanished by the fifth-century. Indeed, at this time, writers began to note the differences in mortuary practices of pagans and Christians, as illustrated by Minucius Felix who noted that Christian funerals were quiet in comparison, and that they did not crown their dead as pagans did. (Mark 1997)
The mortuary practices of pagans in Scandinavia are considerably more challenging to interpret in comparison to aforementioned Roman and Greek beliefs. A passage from Snorri’s Heimskringla is the only specific description of Viking burial, though it was written centuries after Christianity had overtaken pagan traditions. As a result, it is hard to determine how this may have skewed his view on the subject. Aside from his writings, there are only occasional descriptions of funerary practices in the Icelandic Sagas, or from the observations of contemporaries outside the Scandinavian World. (Price 2009) In general, it seems that burial was quite consistent throughout Viking settlements, most favoured cremation with the exceptions of the Icelandic and Greenlandic colonies. Inhumation occurred, albeit less frequently. Beyond cremation and inhumation, burials could take the form of mounds, underground chamber graves and ship burials. The most iconic of these from an archaeological standpoint are ship burials which can be as small as a rowboat or extend as large as a seafaring ship. An example from Kaupang, Norway features a ship burial of four individuals, two women, an infant and a man on a clinker-built boat. (Price 2010)
Despite similarities in certain trends, there were still differences in the details of burial, such as the placement of the body, stone settings and overall construction of graves. Variation is also visible from grave goods, which ranged from small adorning objects to furniture and livestock. An interesting fact that Price (2009) also highlights, is that a large proportion of the population were not allotted a grave, and it is difficult to determine the reason for this. Accounts from Arabic writers, such as Ibn Fadlan suggest that they may have been low status, ‘slaves’ who were essentially cast aside. However, it is entirely possible that these individuals were simply buried at sea, or had their cremated ashes scattered. (Price 2009, 2010). Through the writings of Ibn Fadlan, one could note that death rituals of the Vikings seemed almost theatrical, his account referring to days of feasting, sacrifice and drinking. These rituals are likened by Price to the performance of a story and the extravagance of ship burials could certainly reflect this. Scandinavian pagans were subsequently exposed to Christianity, through trade, diplomacy, raids and missions, and by the middle of the ninth century there were churches in areas such as Ribe and Hedeby. (Thompson 2004, p38)
In an Anglo-Saxon context, the conversion of pagans gained momentum around the seventh century and by Alfred’s succession in 871, conversion had been underway for over two centuries. (Hadley 2011, p290; Thompson 2004 p27) Consequently, seventh century furnished burials are often regarded as the last pagan burials, but there is little evidence to suggest that the artefacts from these graves were not Christian. Many grave goods interred within seventh century burials have Christian associations (i.e crosses) despite that provision for the afterlife is mainly attributed to pagan traditions. The presence of grave goods and clothed burials, such as that of St. Cuthbert, express a desire to ensure that the status of certain individuals were recognised after death. (Thompson 2004, p33) Therefore, while not often thought of as ‘Christian,’ it is clear that grave goods held some importance during this time. Hadley (2011), suggests that many of these artefacts could have had ‘apotropaic’ qualities in mortuary practice. Materials such as white quartz were interred with bodies as they may have been symbolic of purity, an idea spurred from the ‘Book of Revelation.’ In some instances, stones were placed in the mouth or over the eyes, which invokes a similar image to the Greek ritual of placing a coin in the mouth, though it is suggested that this practice was influenced by the Christian belief that the mouth and eyes were “conduits of sin.” (Hadley 20011 p300)
There is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the question of what defines a Christian burial in a later Anglo-Saxon context. In general, it seems that the common answer amounts to relatively simple burials, but this idea is not truly representative of early medieval burial practices. Prominent features of late Anglo-Saxon funerary culture actually include; complex rituals, visible structures and various methods of burial. Hence, there are often difficulties in differentiating pagan graves from Christian graves. The reason for this appears to be that the church did not offer defined guidelines regarding the correct form of a ‘Christian’ burial. Thompson (2004) suggests that there were competing, regional Christian powers present long before the Reformation and thus, widely different interpretations of mortuary practices co-existed. To complicate matters regarding burial even further, during the seventh to ninth centuries, churchyard burials mainly encompassed members of the clergy and the wealthy, indicating that the majority of Christian burials at this time must have been located elsewhere. Therefore, it can be assumed that burials located away from the church, perhaps at family burial sites, do not always indicate that the individual was pagan and not Christian. The complexity regarding burial at sites such as Hamwic represents this. (Thompson 2004, pp29-30)
A notable change in Christian burial and ideology occurs in the tenth century. During this time a burial tax was introduced, revealing the privilege of church burial, although it later develops into a compulsory fee when churchyard burials become more universal in the eleventh century. (Thompson 2004) Additionally, there was a notable decline of furnished burial rites at this stage. This change is believed to have been a deliberate decision to distance Christian burial from pagan funerary practices. Variety in burial remained quite common on the other hand, with multiple types of coffins and materials to line graves, though stones featured prominently. This is the result of each individual church making their own decision as to what was appropriate for burial, or allowing the family of the deceased to do so. As a result, there were varying degrees of priestly involvement in burials during this period. Despite this, there is some evidence of regularity with which certain grave types occur. In the majority of Christian burials, the body was laid in a supine position and aligned from west to east. Evidence for plot rows at churchyard cemeteries also indicate some form of increased coordination. Thompson (2004), explains the difficulties in accurately surmising burial during this period, stating that “The very concept of ‘Christian burial’ is one of rapidly changing ideas.”
Thompson also explores the Christian fear of a sudden death or an ‘unconfessed death.’ This fear was brought about through the Christian theme of judgement at Domesday and the prospect of divine punishment, an intrinsic part of the faith. Confession or penance was a method of redeeming or resurrecting a soul that was killed or burdened with sin. Hence why the tale of Lazarus underpins much of the funerary practices of Christianity in the Middle Ages. In the 10th century, the verb lazarizare, (to wrap in a shroud.) The shroud standing as a symbol of sin and the prospect of the rotting body being redeemed. The matter of sin seemed to have been tied with decay of the body, an belief that was probably fueled by the presence of relics and the incorruptibility of saints after death. (Thompson 2004). This sentiment is echoed in Ireland in the seventh century, when the cult of saints begins to grow, illustrated in that some burial grounds became centered around a saint. Ultimately, holy human remains and relics became a commodity in Christianity. (O’Brien )
To conclude, death is a complex concept that toes the line between earthly and spiritual. Ideas of the afterlife can be wide-spread or localised, andthus, it can be difficult to determine beliefs and make generalisations regarding mortuary practice. Regardless, differences are highly notable. Christianity is largely defined by its core beliefs of penance, judgment in the afterlife and ultimately, resurrection on Domesday. While death is commonly not the end for the soul in religion, in Christianity this extends to the body. In burial, Christianity shifted the focus from grave goods to gradually simpler burials overall, marked with the cross for symbolism, and inhumation replaced cremation. However, despite glaring differences between pagan beliefs and those of Christianity, it is clear that Christianity was greatly influenced by pre-existing pagan ways of thought.