Greek Funerary Practices
Given that El Dia de los Muertos has gotten a fair amount of traction in American culture, I thought Greek Americans would be well served with an explanation of some of their culture’s rites and beliefs with regards to their dead. As a woman of Hellenic descent, you might as well be informed as from ancient to modern times, it is you, the woman, that would be responsible for making the ritual practices necessary for the deceased. Women tend to be instrumental in the rites and rituals of funerary practice in most cultures as they are the gate-keepers of life and death. So as not to appear clueless when someone dies in our Greek community, so that you are aware of what to expect and what is expected of you, here is a quick run-down.
Ancient Greek Funerary Practices:
Compliments of Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Greeks believed that at the moment of death, the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad 23: 71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis (laying out of the body (54.11.5), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed (75.2.11) and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Lamentation of the dead is featured in Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.
The most lavish funerary monuments were erected in the sixth century B.C. by aristocratic families of Attica in private burial grounds along the roadside on the family estate or near Athens. Relief sculpture, statues (32.11.1), tall stelai crowned by capitals (11.185a-c,f,g), and finials marked many of these graves. Each funerary monument had an inscribed base with an epitaph, often in verse that memorialized the dead. A relief depicting a generalized image of the deceased sometimes evoked aspects of the person’s life, with the addition of a servant, possessions, dog, etc. On early reliefs, it is easy to identify the dead person; however, during the fourth century B.C., more and more family members were added to the scenes, and often many names were inscribed (11.100.2), making it difficult to distinguish the deceased from the mourners. Like all ancient marble sculpture, funerary statues and grave stelai were brightly painted, and extensive remains of red, black, blue, and green pigment can still be seen (04.17.1).
Many of the finest Attic grave monuments stood in a cemetery located in the outer Kerameikos, an area on the northwest edge of Athens just outside the gates of the ancient city wall. The cemetery was in use for centuries—monumental Geometric kraters marked grave mounds of the eighth century B.C. (14.130.14), and excavations have uncovered a clear layout of tombs from the Classical period, as well. At the end of the fifth century B.C., Athenian families began to bury their dead in simple stone sarcophagi placed in the ground within grave precincts arranged in man-made terraces buttressed by a high retaining wall that faced the cemetery road. Marble monuments belonging to various members of a family were placed along the edge of the terrace rather than over the graves themselves.
The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Funerary Practices
Women played a major role in funeral rites. They were in charge of preparing the body, which was washed, anointed and adorned with a wreath. The mouth was sometimes sealed with a token or talisman, referred to as “Charon’s obol” if a coin was used, and explained as payment for the ferryman of the dead to convey the soul from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Initiates into mystery religions might be furnished with a gold tablet, sometimes placed on the lips or otherwise positioned with the body, that offered instructions for navigating the afterlife and addressing the rulers of the underworld, Hades and Persephone; the German term Totenpass, “passport for the dead,” is sometimes used in modern scholarship for these.
After the body was prepared, it was laid out for viewing on the second day. Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites was called the prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts. The Prothesis may have previously been an outdoor ceremony, but a law later passed by Solon decreed that the ceremony take place indoors. Before dawn on the third day, the funeral procession (ekphora) formed to carry the body to its resting place.
At the time of the funeral, offerings were made to the deceased by only a relative and lover. The choai, or libation, and the haimacouria, or blood propitiation were two types of offerings. The mourner first dedicated a lock of hair, along with choai, which were libations of honey, milk, water, wine, perfumes, and oils mixed in varying amounts. A prayer then followed these libations. Then came the enagismata, which were offerings to the dead that included milk, honey, water, wine, celery, pelanon (a mixture of meal, honey, and oil), and kollyba (the first fruits of the crops and dried fresh fruits). Once the burial was complete, the house and household objects were thoroughly cleansed with seawater and hyssop, and the women most closely related to the dead took part in the ritual washing in clean water. Afterwards, there was a funeral feast called the perideipnon. The dead man was the host, and this feast was a sign of gratitude towards those who took part in burying him.
Modern Greek Funerary Practices:
It is not surprising that many of the ancient traditions have filtered their way to the modern era. Women are responsible for preparing the body in rural villages. Women still prepare the kolyva, the barley sugar honey pomegranate with dried fruits and nuts, to be used in the memory of the deceased. A visit to the local or municipal cemeteries reveals that it is women dressed in black against the stark marble white that tend to the graves by cleaning them, keeping the vigil lamps replenished with olive oil and incensing. It is the women that provide the names of the deceased to be read during the Divine Liturgies and call priests for special commemorative services in honor of their fallen ones.
Orthodox Greek Funerary Practices:
The Greek Orthodox Church believes death separates the soul from the body and is the beginning of a new life. In fact, one’s death is considered to be one’s birth day into the afterlife. The feast days of all Orthodox saints, therefore, occur on their death day, when they enter into the Lord. Later, with Christ’s coming, the final judgment will result and each soul will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.
Traditional Greek Orthodox funerals include five parts:
- 1 A Wake:
It is customary for members of the Greek Orthodox church to hold a wake the night before the funeral. Loved ones and friends may be invited to speak about the deceased and a priest may preside over the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy) service
- 2 Funeral Service:The body washed and dressed in white garments is taken to Church while kinsfolk sing Psalmic verses on the way.The Orthodox funeral service of today goes back to the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th centuries in its main articulation and was later enriched by the eight hymns of St. John of Damascus by which the ephemeral of this life and the eternity of the life hereafter are poetically described. The funeral service includes one Epistle Reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and a Gospel Reading (John 5:24-31).
During the funeral service proper, the priest may also offer a sermon and speak about the deceased. Only priests can speak during the funeral unlike some Protestant traditions where family and friends utter eulogies or other speeches about the deceased. The casket will likely be open with a viewing of the deceased. According to tradition, the casket will face east with feet toward the altar. At the funeral service, guests can greet the family with the phrase, “Memory Eternal” or with the phrase “Zoe se sas” “Life to you (the living).” The priest may also seal the casket with oil and sand. Family members are allowed to pay their last respects by giving a kiss of peace.
- 3 Burial:
A brief graveside service is customarily held with the Trisagion Service (Thrice Holy) performed again. Hymns may also be sung followed by a blessing by the priest. Traditionally, cremation was not permitted in the Greek Orthodox Church. It is still the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America that cremation is not permitted.
- 4 Funeral Luncheon:
After the burial, many Orthodox funerals are followed by a funeral luncheon referred to a makaria (mercy meal). Fish, an ancient Christian symbol is typically served. Although an elaborate lunch is not required, it is customary for those in the funeral to sit for a cup of unsweetened bitter coffee (that symbolizes the bitterness of death) along with a shot of strong brandy.
- 5 Memorial Service:
In many cases, a memorial service will be held the Sunday following the funeral. Greek families remember their dead quite lovingly. They are not forgotten easily. As a result, it is quite normal to have a series of Memorial Services done for the deceased on the 3rd day after death, then on the Sunday after death, then the 9th day, then again at 40 days and then at 3 months then 9 months then every year thereafter. It is not uncommon to hear a priest commemorating the 29th or 35th anniversary of the death of someone in his parish during a short memorial service that usually takes place after Divine Liturgy each Sunday. Additionally, the Church sets aside specific “Soul Saturdays” that are dedicated to prayers
Beliefs of the Soul After Death: Theology of Greek Funerary Practices
According to some fathers of the faith, the soul of the person who has “fallen asleep” remains on earth from three to 40 days after death, often frequenting the places associated with his or her earthly existence. It is not uncommon for family members to be visited by their dead in their dreams. It is commonly held that the dead in dream cannot talk.
The Church emphasizes the duality of birth and death by offering frequent and constant prayers for those who have passed away. Every time there is a liturgy the names of the Deceased are written on a long paper that is then used by the priest during the Proskomedie, as particles of the prosphora that transubstantiate becoming the Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharist. In essence the memory and substance of those who have fallen asleep become vivified as part of the Eucharistic Cup, the presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Himself the first-born of death and an embodiment of the Resurrection. The dead are never really dead in the Orthodox Church, but celebrated along with the living as two sides of the same coin so to speak.
In some Patristic teachings, the soul goes into the “bosom of Abraham.” But the moment of death involves doing battle with the forces of good and evil–the demons and angels. As explained in the book Life after Death according to the Orthodox Tradition, written by Jean-Claude Larchet,, “One sees the demons, accusing, lying, and grasping . . .One sees one’s guardian angel, and possibly the saints who may come to welcome the departing Christian soul as it steps from this world into the next. This terrifying ordeal of facing the demons is the subject of much patristic material, and many of the church’s prayers for the dying also deal with this.
In the thought of the New Testament, the abode of demons is not in hell below, but in the air above. Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the one whose “spiritual armies of wickedness” occupy “the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12). This is why, according to St. Athanasius, Christ died lifted up on the cross, dying above the ground, in the open air. “The air is the sphere of the devil…the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us up to heaven” (On the Incarnation, ch. 25). To get to God in heaven, one has to run the gauntlet of these demonic armies, fighting one’s way through. The monastic stories of the deaths of some of the desert Fathers relate their final struggle with these demonic foes. The Church’s liturgical tradition builds on this, speaking of the demons as trying to seize the soul as it dies. For example Ps. 22:12-13 refers to “Many bulls surrounding me; they open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion”, and the Canon for the Departure of the Soul speaks of the demons as “noetic roaring lions” which “seek to carry me away and bitterly torment me” (Ode 3). If one is a true believer, the angels defend the departing soul, and carry it through the accusations of the demons to safety and blessedness. The souls untouched by grace or which have not finished their course in piety and faith are not able to find their way to safety, but are dragged down to Hades to await their final judgment.”
Death and the afterlife is just one step before the the Final Judgment. That is when a New Earth and a New Jerusalem will be founded.
Kolyva: The Food of the Dead, a staple of Greek Funerary Practices
It is mandatory that during the memorial service a dish of the traditional kolyva be prepared and distributed to all those in attendance. Kolyba, as mentioned is an ancient food of the dead. Each of its ingredients is symbolic. As such it is not a dessert that can be consumed. Its preparation and consumption is mostly symbolic. As a blog in the LATimes states “In fact, koliva is a dish that is heavy with ritual significance. It’s more metaphor than food, really, symbolizing the circle of death and rebirth. The wheat berries represent the promise of everlasting life, the raisins the sweetness of life, and the spices are symbols of plenty.” The pomegranate is a long-held fruit of the underworld since Persephone.
|4 cups||wheat berries (about 1 pound, 6 ounces)|
|1/2 cup||sesame seeds|
|1 tsp.||anise seeds|
|1-1/2 cup||walnuts, coarsely chopped (6 ounces)|
|1-1/2 cup||slivered blanched almonds (6 ounces)|
|1-1/2 cup||golden raisins|
|1 tsp.||ground cinnamon|
|1||lg. fresh pomegranate (see Notes)|
|3 cups||confectioners’ sugar Divided (sometimes called icing or|
|2 cups||whole blanched almonds, for decorating|
|Silver draggees (see Notes)|
Peculiarities of Athens Cemeteries:
If you have the luck to die in Athens, then you will be faced with another daunting ritual: the burial and unburial then transfer of remains. Athens in not only the most crowded city in Greece for the living; space is hard to come by even for the dead.
What typically happens is one is given a plot to bury their deceased in one of the three already overcrowded municipal cemeteries. If you are illustrious enough to be buried in Athens 1st cemetery, you will make bedfellows with the more famous Athenian dead such as Melina Mercouri.
The deceased is given a plot for three years (that is how long it takes for a body under usual conditions to decompose.). After this time, the family must arrange for the remains to be excavated, during which time another Memorial Service is read, and the bones transferred either to an ossuary or a sarcophagus/private funeral vault if your family is so endowed. As is the case in the bureaucratic system of Greece, the deceased receives a number for his/her ossuary box that is then “filed” or indexed in what looks like a modern office records room with iron filing cabinets. This is where the remains remain until the family transfers the remains to a private cemetery. Of course, there is a maintenance fee for every year of “storage” at the ossuary filing room. If the family does not pay for the fee, the bones are then transferred to a communal plot where they all turn to dust.
Greek funerary practices vary somewhat by region but one thing is certain, the dead are not really dead in Greek culture. They have the living that keep them alive.
Rinse the wheat berries and place them in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches, along with a few pinches of salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the berries are tender and beginning to split but not mushy, about 1 3/4 hours. (Add more water to the pot when the liquid reduces to the level that the wheat no longer floats, and stir from time to time so the berries don’t stick to the bottom.) Drain and set aside in the strainer to cool and dry for at least 1 hour or up to several hours.
Place the cooled wheat berries in a large mixing bowl. Add the sesame and anise seeds, walnuts, slivered almonds, raisins, cinnamon, and the pomegranate seeds. Sift in 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar and toss it all together.
Transfer the mixture to a large platter or tray. Sift the remaining confectioners’ sugar over the top to coat it thickly, almost like a frosting. Decorate the top with the whole almonds and the dragees.
To serve, present the platter of decorated kolyva. Then, just before eating, mix it all together.
NOTES: Pomegranate is not always in season, but there really is no substitute for the seed in taste, texture, or symbolism. If it is not available, simply omit it.
Dragees are available in any well stocked large supermarket, usually in the baking aisle.
Kolyva is traditionally prepared the day before the memorial serve, but the wheat berries can ferment if left at room temperature overnight and the sugar can crystallize in a refrigerator’s moist environment. The best pre-preparation method is to boil and refrigerate the wheat berries ahead of time, then add the other ingredients and decorate the kolyva just before it’s needed.
While this is a mournful memorial food, it is also a much loved treat, patted down in pie tins, blanketed with a thick layer of sugar, and elaborately festooned with silver dragee candies, seeds, and almonds.
It is brought to the church for blessing on the third and ninth day of a beloved’s passing, again at forty days, a year, and three years, and also on “Soul Saturday” twice a year.
After church the kolyva is poured into a sack or a large bowl, mixing the sugar, decoration, and grain together, and offered around. Children wait for it, paper bags at the ready. Adults, unable to forgo the comfort and memory of it, take handfuls. It is a fine way to honor the deceased with the food of life.