Even in its first iterations, humanity has commemorated those we’ve lost. Perhaps it’s the power behind the passing of a loved one. Or maybe it’s the intuition that death signifies a beginning rather than an end. Either way, we’ve always found ways to honor the closing of a life well-lived. Explore the fascinating funerary rites of ancient civilizations and discover the importance of these practices through time.
Prehistoric Stirrings of Burial Rites
The oldest funeral of the ancient world in recorded history occurred nearly 10,000 years ago. The impressive gravesite—located in Qafzeh, Israel—paints a vivid picture of what death and grieving looked like all those centuries ago. The cave with these early human remains indicates that it served as a cemetery for this particular ancient community.
Further, these remains were in organized groupings, such as family units, with certain areas set aside for children. This suggests that early humans could demonstrate elaborate social behaviors, emotional attachments, and intelligent systems of hierarchy.
Plus, there’s evidence that they dressed the bodies in Ochre paint before placing them in their coffins. They were also found with trinkets, garments, and food—suggesting that even our earliest incarnations had an intrinsic understanding of death, grief, and the significance of commemorating lost loved ones.
Death in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt
As the eras went on, ancient civilizations rapidly evolved in art, culture, technology, and life as they knew it. As a result, their funerary practices became increasingly sophisticated—particularly in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. Sumerian and Babylonian communities believed they went to the underworld after death. This belief gave rise to the well-known funerary practice of ground burials.
These communities also birthed the idea of bringing offerings or gifts to the graves of their loved ones, which is something many people still do today. The death rites of ancient Egypt and their Eastern counterparts were nearly identical. Egyptians also entombed their dearly departed with belongings and used similar methods to honor their dead.
However, they differed in that Egypt’s climate made mummification a common practice, as it protected the remains from rot. They also used pyramids as tombs for the deceased rather than burying them underground. Many of these ancient practices would span eons and oceans, laying the foundation for how we commemorate our lost loved ones now.
Ancient Greco-Roman Funerary Traditions
Of course, we can’t discuss funerals of the ancient world without mentioning the all-important Greco-Roman funerary traditions. The rites of this ancient civilization differ slightly from the others in this guide. Ancient Greco-Roman culture dictated that a spirit left the physical body through a breath of air when one passed. They also shared the belief that the afterlife took place in the underworld.
Thus, it was imperative to prepare the body to allow safe passage for the spirit. After this, a large funeral procession would take place and position them to find their final resting place, either through a ground burial or funeral pyre for the Gods. But perhaps, the most fascinating Greco-Roman tradition we still honor today is the emphasis on preserving the memory of our lost loved ones.
Greco-Romans placed a lot of value on the idea of immortality and believed that keeping one’s memory alive was the way to do that. Thus, they would create art, pen sweeping eulogies, and even public parades. And while many of these practices have evolved to fit the times, there’s no denying that we honor our dearly departed in similar ways today.