The corpse was bathed and perfumed and dressed in the richest robes in preparation of the funeral of the deceased. The corpse was laid upon a couch strewn with flowers, with the feet pointing towards the outer door. Coins would be placed under the tongue or over the eyes of the dead to ensure a safe journey to the underworld.
Roman Funerals - The Funeral Procession and Ceremonies
Roman funerals took place by torch light. The corpse was carried with the feet foremost on an open bier covered with the richest cloth and carried by the nearest relatives and friends of the deceased. The funeral procession was preceded by the image of the deceased, together with those of his ancestors. The funeral procession was attended by musicians, with wind instruments of a larger size and a deeper tone than those used on less solemn occasions. Mourning women and men were hired to sing the praises of the deceased. These hired mourners would wear the ancestral imagines, or funerary masks, of the dead's descendants. A eulogy (praise for the dead person) was read during the procession and occasionally after the funeral as in the funeral speech delivered by Marc Antony to Julius Caesar. This event was immortalised by William Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar when he wrote his version of the speech beginning with "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..."
Roman Funerals - The Funeral Pyre
Cremation was the most common funeral practice in the Roman Empire, although burial was also used. The custom of burning the dead was was steeped in tradition at the Roman funerals. A funeral pile was constructed in the shape of an altar, upon which the corpse was laid. The nearest relative then set fire to it. Perfumes and spices were afterwards thrown into the blaze, and when it was extinguished, the embers were quenched with wine. The ashes were then collected and deposited in an urn, to be kept in the mausoleum of the family. At the conclusion of the procession and the ceremony the sepulchre was strewed with flowers, and the mourners took a last farewell of the remains of the deceased. Water was then thrown upon the mourners by a priest to purify them from the pollution which the Ancient Romans believed to be communicated by any contact with a corpse. There were food and drink offerings to the dead together with animal sacrifices at Roman Funerals. Festivals would be held for important members of the family.
Roman Funerals of Poor Romans
The Roman funerals of poor were far simpler affairs. The corpse was either buried which allowed a certain amount or ceremony and sacrifices to be made or if a family did not have enough money to afford a proper funeral, they simply put the corpse in a casket and threw it in a creek or river where other poor dead people had been thrown.
Roman Funerals - Catacombs
Catacombs, or underground burial places, were first used in the second century when burial land was scarce. Ancient Roman Christians also used this type of burial which afforded a level of secrecy to the Christian sect, which was illegal at the time. Some of these catacombs have kilometres of tunnels and were built in up to four storeys or layers.
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