Throughout history, the vast majority of cultures and societies have practiced rituals for putting their dead to rest. Learning about these rituals can provide unique insights into a culture’s values and beliefs. Exploring this topic can also offer general answers to the question, “Why do we bury the dead?”
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Ancient Roman Views of Death and Dying
- Ancient Roman Funeral and Burial Customs
- How Did Ancient Romans Honor the Dead?
- How Did Ancient Roman Funerals Influence Today’s Funeral Practices?
Consider the example of the ancient Romans. Although it’s important to understand that ancient Roman society changed in major ways over the course of history, during many periods, ancient Romans honored the deceased through elaborate and structured ceremonies.
This guide will cover these rituals and clarify why Roman funeral customs were so important to ancient Roman society in general.
Tip: If you're planning a virtual Roman funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still partake in the Roman traditions below. Talk with your funeral director or event planner to see what rituals they can adapt for a live stream.
Ancient Roman Views of Death and Dying
During most periods, the ancient Romans believed in an eternal soul. That’s a major reason Roman funerals were so ritualized. They believed following certain rituals was key to helping a deceased person’s soul move through the initial stages of the afterlife.
Romans specifically believed that a person would meet the messenger god, Mercury, when they died. Mercury would escort their soul to the River Styx, where Charon, the ferryman, would transport them across the river to the underworld.
An ancient Roman soul would then meet Minos, Aenaeus, and Rhadymanthas. These three figures would judge a person to determine the next stage in their journey.
Those who had lived good lives would spend eternity in one of two places. If they were an ordinary person, they would go to the Asphodel Meadows. Warriors and similar figures would go to the Fields of Elysium.
Not all Roman souls spent eternity in total happiness and peace first. Sometimes the judges would determine they committed a crime and owed a debt to society. In these cases, a soul would first go to Tartarus, where the Furies tortured them until they repaid their debt. Unlike some cultures, the ancient Romans did not believe in eternal damnation.
Ancient Roman Funeral and Burial Customs
Ancient Roman funerals and burial customs could vary depending on a person’s status and similar factors. That said, they typically involved the following key steps.
Preparing the body
When someone in ancient Rome died, family members or those close to them would perform a ceremony that involved closing his eyes and calling out his name. They would then wash the body and place a coin in the mouth of the deceased. This coin was for payment for the ferryman who would transport the deceased’s body to the afterlife.
After this, they would lay the deceased’s body out on a couch in his or her finest robe. Ancient Romans kept the body on display (usually in the deceased’s home) for a period of time so mourners could pay their respects.
Funeral rites or customs
After the body was kept on display, the next part included other funeral rites or customs.
The funeral procession
The next stage in many ancient Roman funerals was the procession. After the deceased had been on display for a certain amount of time, mourners would carry the body from the house to the burial or cremation spot. Romans carried the bodies of relatively wealthy people on special funeral couches made of expensive materials like ivory. They might carry someone less wealthy on a basic coffin.
The Designator, or Dominus Funeris, was a Roman official who traditionally set the order of the procession. The deceased’s nearest relatives usually carried the couch or coffin holding the body. That said, many of Rome’s elite also had slaves and stipulated in their wills that their slaves would be free upon their death. Sometimes newly-freed slaves carried the body.
Sons and daughters followed. Sons traditionally veiled their heads, while daughters walked with their heads bare. In some cases, they would also utter loud cries of mourning throughout the procession.
Depending on the deceased’s status in society, their procession might stop at a rostra, a public speaking platform in Rome. There someone would deliver an oration praising them.
The funeral pyre
Cremating bodies wasn’t always common in ancient Roman society. This practice wasn’t as widespread once Christianity started to take root.
However, during some periods, it was common to end a Roman funeral procession at a funeral pyre. Romans would load the body into the fire, often eulogizing the deceased as they burned. Sometimes they would also burn items they thought the deceased would appreciate, such as ornaments and food. Once the fire had completely burned out, a loved one (often the deceased’s wife or mother) could collect the remains in an urn.
Role of professional mourners
Ancient Roman funerals could be highly ceremonial. This is particularly true of Roman funerals for important members of society. They commonly featured a range of professional mourners. These may have included the following people.
Again, Roman funerals frequently involved processions. Professional musicians would lead them, playing mournful music.
Praeficiae were mourning women who followed the musicians in a Roman funeral procession. Their role involved singing a funeral song that praised the person who had passed on.
After the praeficiae sang, some Roman funerals included appearances by such performers as an Archimimus. This was a performer who would imitate the deceased’s speech and behaviors. They essentially served as a stand-in for the deceased at their own funeral procession.
Where they buried the dead
Ancient Romans buried their dead in various places, depending on their status. Additionally, because the Roman Empire developed over the course of a long time, the specific period when a person died might also determine their burial location.
Ancient Romans often buried members of society’s lowest classes in mass pit graves. Wealthier families could afford to entomb deceased loved ones in a mausoleum or brick chest.
Many Romans also participated in collegia, or funeral societies. Members had to pay monthly dues. These served to cover future funeral costs for themselves and their loved ones. Membership in one of these societies also ensured their cremated remains would have a spot in a columbarium.
A columbarium was a special underground vault with spots for cremains. Family members could also sometimes add sculptures and similar memorials to the vault.
Ancient Romans believed a person’s safe passage to the afterlife depended on a proper burial. That’s why so many emphasized the importance of a spot in a columbarium.
How Did Ancient Romans Honor the Dead?
The ancient Romans didn’t stop honoring their dead once their funerals were over. Adopting traditions from the ancient Greeks, many Romans also periodically visited their deceased loved one’s tombs or burial sites to offer gifts and sacrifices.
Toward the end of February, ancient Romans sometimes celebrated Feralia as well. This was a general festival for honoring the dead. Romans would traditionally celebrate by bringing food to the sepulchers of the deceased.
Ancient Romans also honored their dead through extended mourning. Men would typically mourn for a period of a few days, during which they would always wear black and would not cut their hair or beards. Women would wear white and might not cut their hair as well. However, while formal mourning usually only lasted a few days for men, when a woman lost a husband or parent, it wasn’t uncommon for her to mourn for a year.
How Did Ancient Roman Funerals Influence Today’s Funeral Practices?
It comes as no surprise that many funeral customs in ancient Rome differ from our own in key ways. However, it’s also worth noting that there are plenty of similarities as well. These are just a few of the ways ancient Roman funeral practices influenced our funeral practices today.
Once again, after someone died, the ancient Romans would typically put a body on display for mourners to pay their respects. This is similar to a traditional wake you might attend now.
That said, there were some key differences. For example, not all Romans would be on display for the same length of time. Romans accounted for a person’s status in society when deciding how long to display them. Some members of the upper class would be on display for up to a week. On the other hand, it wasn’t uncommon to cremate lower-class people after only one day.
You can see echoes of Roman funerals in such present-day customs as a New Orleans jazz funeral. Like many ancient Romans, some people in New Orleans arrange processions with music and performances when putting someone to rest.
The Victorian approach to mourning and funeral practices may not be as popular as it once was. However, until recent history, strict mourning practices played an important role in British society. They still influence how some in the U.K. mourn today.
Specifically, in Victorian England, women would often only wear certain colors for a year after the death of their husbands. This is similar to the extended mourning period many Roman women practiced.
The ancient Romans may not have been the first to set aside an annual celebration for honoring the dead. That said, festivals such as Feraria may very well have inspired such celebrations as Day of the Dead to some extent.
Ancient Roman Funerals: A Shared Cultural Experience
Whether it’s an ancient Roman funeral or a modern Italian funeral, a ritual for saying goodbye to departed loved ones can tell you quite a bit about a culture in general. For example, these points clearly show the ancient Romans believed that honoring the dead properly was one of their most important responsibilities in life.
- Brettman, Estelle Shohet. “Burials in Ancient Rome.” International Catacomb Society, www.catacombsociety.org/burials-in-ancient-rome/
- “Did the ancient Romans believe in an afterlife?” All About History, www.allabouthistory.org/ancient-romans-faq.htm
- “A Roman Funeral.” University of Michigan Ann Arbor, exhibitions.kelsey.lsa.umich.edu/galleries/Exhibits/Death_on_Display/Cremation_Group/funeral.html
- Smith, William. “Funus.” The University of Chicago, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Funus.html
- "Dealings with the Dead, Volume 1." Library of Alexandria, 2012, Print.