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Remembering the dead

November 13, 2017

Whether celebrating with ghosts and spirits at Halloween or commemorating those who have died in war it is that time of year when we start thinking about the dead. But while we remember loved ones, they are very much in the past tense. Even our euphemisms like 'passed away' or 'no longer with us' emphasise that the dead are not part of our lives. Ancient peoples had very different attitudes to death and the dead that we may find quite alien.


The roadside tomb of Eurysaces the baker outside the Porta Maggiore in Rome.


Modern cemeteries are set aside as quiet places of sadness and mourning, and visiting the grave of a loved one is a matter of personal choice. By contrast Roman necropoleis (Greek for 'cities of the dead') lined the main roads into towns and cities across the empire; some monuments even have inscriptions with warnings or entreaties directed at passers by. Moreover, living relatives would regularly visit their ancestors' tombs for festivals. For example, the feralia on the final day of the parentalia in February when families would feast at the grave site making sure to share their food and drink with the deceased.


The Togatus Barberini, a statue probably showing a Senator holding imagines of his ancestors. By A. Hekler, Greek & Roman Portraits, New York, 1912, pl. 127a., Public Domain, Wikimedia


In Roman elite families it was common practice to display imagines, portraits of deceased relatives, in the atrium of the house. There is some debate about whether these were wax masks cast from the face of the deceased, or sculptures made after death. Polybius, writing in the second century BC described, the imagines as realistic masks depicting the deceased which would be carefully stored and brought out for public sacrifices and the funerals of illustrious family members (6.53). Thus, the ancestors could maintain a presence at important rituals and in the family home decades after their death.


The entrance to West Kennet Long barrow, Wiltshire. Chris Talbot [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via


In Neolithic Wiltshire, the ancestors were similarly active in the life of the community, and their 'tombs', such as West Kennet long barrow, were less permanent resting places than living sites of community ritual. This megalithic monument has three chambers within the mound which contained disarticulated long bones and skulls. This suggests that Neolithic people were defleshing bodies before burial, then storing the clean bones in the monument. However, this was no static storage facility, as the bones seem to have been sorted and rearranged perhaps several times over the 150 years the site was in use. What appears to us to be a jumble of bones may have been how the ancestors participated with the living community.

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