|Ancient Roman Traditions
In ancient Rome, the eldest surviving male of the household, the pater familias, was
summoned to the death-bed, where he attempted to catch and inhale the last breath
of the descedant.
Funerals of the socially prominent were usually done by professional undertakers
called libitinarii. No direct description has been passed down of Roman funeral
rites. These rites usually included a public procession to the tomb or pyre where the
body was to be cremated. The most noteworthy thing about this procession was that
the survivors bore masks bearing the images of the family's deceased ancestors. The
right to carry the masks in public was eventually restricted to families prominent
enough to have held curule magistracies. Mimes, dancers, and musicians hired by
the undertakers, as well as professional female mourners, took part in these
processions. Less well to do Romans could join benevolent funerary societies
(collegia funeraticia) who undertook these rites on their behalf.
Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given
(cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave or the ashes. Since most
Romans were cremated, the ashes were typically collected in an urn and placed in a
niche in a collective tomb called a columbarium (literally, "dovecote"). During this
nine day period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with
yew or cypress branches to warn bypassers. At the end of the period, the house was
swept in an attempt to purge it of the dead person's ghost.
Several Roman holidays commemorated a family's dead ancestors, including the
Parentalia, held February 13 through 21, to honour the family's ancestors; and the
Lemuria, held on May 9, 11, and 13, in which ghosts (larvæ) were feared to be
active, and the pater familias sought to appease them with offerings of beans.
The Romans prohibited burning or burying in the city, both from a sacred and civil
consideration, so that the priests might not be contaminated by touching a dead
body, and so that houses would not be endangered by funeral fires.
The Romans commonly built tombs for themselves during their lifetime. Hence
these words frequently occur in ancient inscriptions, V.F. Vivus Facit, V.S.P. Vivus
Sibi Posuit. The tombs of the rich were usually constructed of marble, the ground
enclosed with walls, and planted round with trees. But common sepulchres were
usually built below ground, and called hypogea. There were niches cut out of the
walls, in which the urns were placed; these, from their resemblance to the niche of a
pigeon-house, were called columbaria.
Roman armies were known to have boiled remains of the dead soldiers. So that they
may return the bones to the loved ones.
Romans practiced ancestor worship as a minor cult.
Catacombs- The underground cemeteries. The word, meaning “by the hollows”,
originally described the location of the burial place of Saint Sebastian, in Rome. In
the 19th century it became the term for all underground vaults of the early
Christians. The use of vaults was not exclusively Christian however.
The Romans in the first and second centuries, used “columbarium” (which means
“dovecote”) as a name for a structure containing multiple funerary urns because the
stacked urns resembled stacked cages.
|Ancient Roman Funerals
Roman burial practices changed very little from local traditions that had come before,
despite the introduction of Christianity and the defeat of the Druids. Most people
were cremated or buried in barrows with a variety of grave goods. However the
Romans wanting to keep up with the times made funeral advances such as using
glass urns for burying ashes, as soon as they began to make glass.
Roman burial grounds were eventually moved alongside roadways, due to Roman
laws which forced burial outside city limits. One exception to that is infant burials,
who were usually buried in the corners of the room or under the threshold of the
|European Funeral History
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