There was a range of views concerning the existence of an afterlife in Ancient
Rome, as well as concerning what it was like. Such feelings often went with the time
period, and are reflected, for example, in a major shift from cremation to inhumation
(burial) as the chief method of burial around the 3rd century, possibly
reflecting a heightened belief in the afterlife as a result of Oriental cults and
Neoplatonism, or simply a desire to build gaudy burial monuments associated with some
There was no
generally accepted view of the afterlife, but many felt that the dead, living in their
tombs, could influence the fortunes of the living in vague, undefined ways.
Therefore, just to be safe, gifts and offerings were made to the deceased, and
celebrations were held at tombs. There was a wide range of superstitious practice
associated with burial. Evidence has been found of tombs being weighted down and
bodies being decapitated for the purpose of preventing them from haunting the world of the
living. Souls were thought to go the underworld (not Heaven or Hell) unless denied
entrance by the gods and being forced to wander in limbo for eternity.
Funerals were generally organized by
professional undertakers who provided mourning women, musicians, and sometimes dancers and
mimes. For the poor, funerals were usually simple, but for the wealthy and
especially the illustrious, the funeral was fantastic. Marked a procession through
the streets of Rome, mourners paused in front of the forum for a ceremony of laudatio,
where the deceased was displayed, normally upright, and a eulogy was read (the laudatio
funebris). During the republic and earlier empire part of the procession was
made up of the deceased's family, all wearing masks of his ancestors. Those wearing
masks rode in chariots as a prominent part of the procession. This right, however,
was restricted to those families who had held curule magistracies. The procession
continued outside the city to the site of the burial or cremation.
Romans either buried (inhumation) or
cremated their dead. Cremation had replaced inhumation as the chief burial rite
until about the mid 3rd century, when inhumation took over again.
Burials took place outside of towns, often roads, except in the case of young
children. They were buried near their houses.
If cremation was the preferred method, the
dead was cremated on a pyre, either at a special part of the cemetery (ustrinum)
or at their already-dug grave, the bustum. Gifts and personal belongings
were also often burned with the dead, after which the ashes were placed in some sort of
container (an urn, a cloth bag, a gold casket, marble chest, some sort of pottery, glass,
or metal). Jews and Christian objected to cremation, which died out in the fifth
In the case of inhumation, bodies were
somehow protected, whether by a sack or shroud for the poor or by a wood, lead, stone, or
otherwise manufactured coffin for the wealthy. Embalming bodies with gypsum plaster
was also a common practice. Christian burials were usually oriented east-west.
Many graves were marked by tombstones,
although these varied enormously. Many of them had inscriptions, while many more
were marked with wood and quickly degenerated. Tombs of various shapes and sizes
have been found, some containing the remains of several deceased. Some Romans also
constructed hug mausoleums for themselves, such as the emperor Hadrian and the pyramid
shaped tomb of Cestius.
Sometimes, although not often, the deceased
seemed to have been granted a sort of "hero" status, almost being treated like a
god after death. The deceased would occupy a temple, tomb, or mausoleum where the
public could enter - seemingly a forerunning tradition to the Christian beliefs in the
powers and sanctity of martyr's tombs.
Rock-cut tombs and catacombs have been
found in Rome, Sicily, Malta, and North Africa.
Roman funeral clubs often deposited
cremated remains in a collective tomb, called a columbarium, or "dove
cote," each urn receiving a respective nidus, or "pigeon hole."
Pagan burials often included goods which
might come in handy in the afterlife. The type of good was generally dependent on
the wealth of the deceased's family. For the rich, vessels of food and drink, a gold
ring, and various perfumes, such as frankincense and myrrh, could all be buried with the
departed. A great number of burials have a gold coin in the mouth, the legendary fee
of the underworld ferryman Charon. Other burial goods which have been found include
boots, shoes, and lamps. It is thought these items were meant to help the departed
on his or her journey through the underworld.