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Of Grave Importance: Ancient Greece

Solemn black and white depiction of a grave. 

Solemn black and white depiction of a grave. 

It’s no surprise that we’d one day die and leave the lives we once had behind. Unlike today where we seemingly try to escape the grim fate of Death, Ancient Athenians had a much greater interest in what comes after life.

This embrace of fate seemed ironic, as there’s great emphasis on the distinction between the Living and the Dead which was evident in Classical Greek (500 BCE - 301 BCE) rituals and concepts such as ritual washing after engaging in polluting activities. The placement of the Kerameikos Cemetery before the entry into the city of Athens also showed that despite the separation between the realms, Death was not a hidden concept.

We’d truly appreciate the importance placed on the Afterlife by recognising the differences between the two realms through Ancient Greek burial rituals, conceptions of death and the afterlife, and their efforts to prevent pollution between the living and the dead.


What Occurred during death rituals?

Death rituals were grand and public occasions, hosted outdoors until the passing of legislation in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, when then on were held indoors or in household courtyards. It was still considered as a grand event and of prominent importance to the daily lives of the people. Let us now take a deep breath and dive deeper into the intricate (BUT interesting!) rituals of the Athenians!  

Inhumation vs Cremation

Inhumation referred to the dead being placed into coffins and buried in the earth while, cremation referred to the process where the body would be burned on a pyre, usually with grave goods. Ashes were then quenched with wine, bones collected and placed in a container, and then buried.

Athenians were buried or inhumated outside the city gates in Kerameikos Cemetery. This was vital in symbolically separating the dead from the living. In the Classical Period, cremation was more popular (pg 41). However, neither method of burial seemed to have been affected by ideas of the afterlife.

The Prothesis

The Prothesis began within the first 24 hours of death where the body was laid out, washed, anointed with olive oil and dressed in white garments. The body was then placed on a funeral kline which functioned as a bier (funeral bed) with the head on a pillow and the feet facing the door. The eyes were closed, a chin strap was tied around the head, and the body was covered by a bier cloth. Occasionally, wild marjoram, celery, and other herbs were sewn on the cloth. It was believed to ward off evil spirits, and vine, myrtle or laurel leaves were laid on. Finally, it is topped off with the custom of hanging a branch of cypress over the door to warn passers-by of the presence of the dead.

The Ekphora 

This is a video that presented in Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, which shows a funerary rite in Ancient Greece. 

Solon stipulated that the Ekphora took place on the third day after death, after the Prothesis.

The Ekphora involved a liminal transportation process where the body was transported by pallbearers or on a horse-drawn cart to a funeral cortege for burial. A line of grievers, accompanied by flutists, also followed the body during the Ekphora.

At the Funeral cortege, the family and other female mourners (some employed) held a vigil and sang laments, whilst the ceremony took place at night. It is unknown if burial service existed, although a eulogy (Epitaphios) was typically delivered.

It was also customary for both men and women to display extreme grief through slatternly clothes, torn hair, hitting their heads and crying (we still cry today, but we’re less dramatic). This of course also caused a great deal of disruption in the city!

For cremation, ashes were then placed in a tomb along with grave goods, thus this contributed to the preservation of exquisite Greek vases that exist today in Museums and the houses of international criminal drug lords whom we shall not mention! (Your secret is safe with us guys)

Athens, in particular, developed and produced the best vase paintings among the Greek world. Vase artist became so influential that they were known as individual artists with different signatures and distinctive inspirational styles. Which explains why such vases became more of an identity then random objects being thrown as tribute. Female mourners were also often painted on vases and sculpted as terracotta figures.



On the 3rd and 9th day from the burial, meals for the deceased (offerings, like how the Chinese do it) were prepared during ceremonies. The 30th day marked the end of the mourning period (pg 25), Athenians would continue to visit the deceased periodically. The celebration of the dead didn’t stop there, as the annual religious festival of Genesia commemorated those who died in battle.

Cremation & Burial Artifacts

Here is one for the morbid enthusiast who loves all things about death.

Graves, Tombs & coffins

During the late Classical period, family enclosures (Peribolos) became popular and lasted for about three generations before a new one started. Peribolos lined major roads leading into cities and was palisaded.

Coffins (soros or larnax) were crafted from pottery stone and, most commonly, wood (pg 336). During the Classical period, infant burials used two clay tubs, one placed over the other, sometimes colourfully painted.


Grave markers

Stelai from 600 to 500 BCE were usually tall, slim and brightly painted. Beasts (such as a sphinx, lion or siren) crowned the grave markers as guardians of the tombs. Each stelai had an inscribed base with an epitaph, to memorialize the dead. Stelai were also embellished by mourners or other possessions. It was easier to identify who died on earlier stelai before the 4th century B.C. as family members were added to the scenes and often many names were inscribed, making it challenging to distinguish the deceased from the mourners.

Grave Goods and Gifts

From 500-425 B.C.E., a decline in grave goods was observed. The majority of grave goods encompassed lekythoi, other small jars, and iron nails. Traditional objects for traveling to the underworld (such as shoes, lamps, and coins for the boat fee of Charon) were not universally deposited with burials. The lekythoi (plural), which were mainly produced between 470-400 B.C.E., were the favourite grave gift amongst Athenians. In Classical Athens, women often visited graves with small cakes and libations.

Photo: Greece in Grayscale    

Photo: Greece in Grayscale


Knowing now the technicalities of Classical Athenian Death rituals, let’s move to the Abstract concepts of the Afterlife.

The Afterlife had been an intriguing concept that we cannot attest to, but can speculate about. A “death culture” formed within societies and collective views of the “Unknown” rose. Whilst the Afterlife wasn’t defined clearly, the separation of the Dead and Living had been popularised in the 4th and 5th century B.C. in Ancient Greece. Furthermore, the views of Classical Greek philosophers continued to influence modern views on the Afterlife.

To understand why they held the Afterlife with grave importance, let's look to the Stages of Death, some concepts of the Afterlife and expound more about the relationship between the Body and Soul!  


3 “Stages” of Death

During the burial rites, the 3 stages placed great emphasis on the shifting relationships involving the Living and the Dead. Understanding these 3 stages can also deepen the significance of the separate stages of burial rites mentioned earlier.

Stage One: The Rite of Separation

Participants move out of their original social roles and enter a liminal (temporary) state. This occurs during the moment of Death before any burial rites (Prothesis included) begins. This also shows the dependence of the dead on the living to enter into the Afterlife.

Stage Two: The Rite de marge

This stage begins when funeral rites have begun to be performed by the living. The deceased can now transition from being a person to a corpse, and the soul is separated from the body. Mourners are frequently associated with pollution (we will discuss this in greater detail below) and/or reversal of roles, dress, and behaviour.

Stage Three: The Rite of aggregation

Mourners return and assimilate into social life, leaving the dead behind on the 30th day of the death. The corpse is disposed of and the soul may rejoin those of the ancestors.


Concepts of the Afterlife

The concept of the Afterlife in Ancient Greece (and everywhere else on Earth) has never really been concretised because differing concepts of the Afterlife still continue to exist. In Ancient times, many legends and concepts about the Underworld existed in Greece.

  1. In class, we learned that according to Epicureanism, the soul died along with the body.
  2. Death left behind an empty corpse, because the soul or “psuche” left the body during a person’s time of death, rendering the body no importance after death.

  3. The Underworld, guarded by Cerberus, three-headed monstrous dog just like Harry Potter's Fluffy, housed all good and bad souls. There, the dead existed without any power.

  4. The bad was banished to Hades (famously depicted in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey) for eternal suffering, while heroes’ souls lived on in the Elysium, far west of the underworld, beyond the ocean, for a life of endless pleasure. Elysium comprised 2 realms - the Islands of the Blessed and the Leathen fields of Hades.

  5. It is possible to connect to the dead by offering food, as explained by our friends who posted Revealing The Dark World Behind Ancient Greek Gastronomy.

This is a brief overview of the Greek afterlife and its main parts.


 CONCEPTs OF THE Body & soul

We will not overcomplicate things by adding the Mind in this discussion but focus on the separation of the Body and Soul.

Aristotle contends that the soul is unlike the corporeal body, he goes on to describe it as "a system of abilities possessed and manifested by animate bodies of suitable structure", suggesting that the body is a function of the soul. Likewise, Plato and Socrates believed that the Soul was immortal and was exempt from destruction along with the body. Plato also expands on the idea of immortality and holds the belief of reincarnation which is evident in his dialogue Phaedo. The arguments made by Plato could be further explained in the Philosophy of Religion.

Clearly, the belief of existing beyond the confines of the physical body was a very popular one. So, does that mean the Dead still had an influence on the Living? Please continue reading to find out about the "Pollution" caused by the Dead.


M i a s m a

Perhaps, the main purpose of emphasising the separation in Death rituals is not so much for the dead, but to create less distress for the living. The "Pollution" felt by the mourners might also signify the cavity felt in the lives of the living & subconsciously paves way for integration back into regular life for the ones left behind. Perhaps, a way to cope with the loss of loved ones.

In the ancient world, the idea that death involved a form of cultural/religious contamination was a general view.

Miasma was Greek for religious pollution, while someone "contaminated" was described as Miaros. Miasma prevents communication with deities and renders rituals ineffective or even sacrilegious. Hence, "contamination" existed beyond the physical notion of hygiene, as it was repulsive to their gods. This meant that births and deaths weren’t permitted in holy places such as temples (pg 8). Other sources of miasma included: birth, menstruation, illness and, murder.

Pollution was also believed to apply to during Rite de marge. Everyone in direct contact with people who have touched a corpse or entered a house in which was polluted by Death are all contaminated. Certain close family members (as written by law) were affected by default. Hence, appropriate purification had to be undergone before contact with gods was permitted.

In 500 BCE, burial within the city was forbidden as potentially caused pollution for the entire community (pg 36). Therefore, it was pertinent that the dead was buried diligently, outside the Dipylon gate in the Kerameikos Cemetery.

By anointing the corpse with oil during the Prothesis, and lekythoi placed at the bedside, pollution is minimized (pg 375). Funeral attendees who were considered polluted had to be purified by ritual washing.


The greatest take away from the Ancients' refreshing yet borderline morbid outlook of Death is that despite the disconnect we feel from those who have passed, we should continue engaging ourselves in healthy discussion to create engagement and involvement with the part of ourselves we will lose in the Afterlife. Today, death might be too unsettling to discuss for most people, “Carpe Diem, Seize the Day” seems like an amazing mantra to live by, but the constant awareness of our morality might induce fear and be counterproductive.

Content Sources

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  3. Alexandra Donnison. (2009) Appropriation of Death in Classical Athens

  4. Andrej Petrovic and Ivana Petrovic (2016). Inner Purity and Pollution in Early Greek Religion

  5. Benjamin Jowett (2018)  Translated Dialogue Phaedo By Plato Written 360 B.C.E

  6. Classical Art Research Centre 1997-2013 | Last updated: 26 October, (2012). Article: Classical Grave Markers pg 5.

  7. Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art October (2003) Death, Burial and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece Essay

  8. Elise P. Garrison. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 121 (1991). Article: Attitudes toward Suicide in Ancient Greece. pg 5.

  9. Elizabeth (2017). Women in Antiquity An Online Resource for the Study of Women in the Ancient World. Women and Funeral Rites in Archaic and Classical Greece

  10. Evy Johanne Håland. (2018). Greek Women and Death, Ancient and Modern: A Comparative Analysis

  11. Evy Johanne Håland. (2014). Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece. Chapter 1.

  12. Francois Pieter Retief and Louise Cilliers. (2010). Burial Customs, The Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece

  13. Greek Mythology Mythic Realms Elysion (2018)

  14. Greek Mythology Mythic Realms Hades Page 1 (2018)

  15. Ian Morris 1960, & American Council of Learned Societies. (1989). Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (1st pbk. ed.) pg 54.

  16. Ian Worthington (2013) Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece (pg 259). Oxford University Press

  17. Jon D. Mikalson Preview of Ancient Greek Religion. An Overview: Greek Sanctuaries and Worship. Temenos

  18. Kenny Ching (March 29, 2018), Revealing the Dark World Behind Ancient Greek Gastronomy. Hello World Civ Blog. web.

  19. Philosophy of Religion (2018).

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  24. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. (2012.) ThesCRA VIII Add. VI 1 e: Death and Burial in the Greek World; Greek funerary rituals in their archaeological context.

Media Sources:

Image 1 Black and White Graveyard by Malsawm  

Image 2 Kerameikos Cemetry, located on the outskirts of the city of Athens by Tilemahos Efthimiadis

Image 3 Stone Greek Coffin by kjs2424

Image 4 Marble Stele of a young girl by Rogers Fund, 1911

Image 5 Marble stele of a youth and little girl with capital and finial in the form of a sphinx by Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1911; Rogers Fund, 1921; Munsey Funds, 1936, 1938; and Anonymous Gift, 1951

Image 6 Familial Marble Stele by Rogers Fund, 1911

Image 7 Marble funerary lekythos. Pentelic marble, ca. 400 BC, found between Athens and the Cape of Sounion. Artist Unknown.

Image 8 White Ground Lekythos displays the funerary ensemble from a mass burial dating from the years 430/426 BC, uncovered in Athens by Giovanni Dall'Orto, November 12 2009.

Image 9 Terracotta lekythos by Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989

Image 10 Greece in Grayscale by  jimmy teoh

Image 11 Elysian Fields by Arthur Bowen Davies

Image 12 Cerberus

Image 13 Plato by milezero

Image 14 Socrates by lentina_x

Image 15 Aristotle by barry lee