Death in ancient times

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Death in early history

The simplest and most original tombs and thus the oldest and most widespread type of burial consisted of building a mound of earth or stone pile over the ashes of the deceased. The book of Joshua as well as Homer and Virgil reported such tombs .

Initially, the Jews had no specially designated burial places. They built these on country roads, in gardens and on mountains. Abraham was buried with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in Efron, Uzziah king of Judah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field at the burial of the kings; for they said, He is a leper.

The ancient Greeks were originally buried in a specially designated place in their own home. The dead were considered ritually unclean and so later cemeteries were created in desert areas and on the outskirts.

Death in ancient times

Death in ancient mythology

Romans and Greeks had the same idea of the afterlife . The soul of the deceased had to cross the river Styx to get to the underworld. The realm of the dead Hades could be reached by being promoted by Charon , the ferryman of the dead. In return for Charon, people put a low-value coin, the obolus, in the mouth or on the eyes of the dead .

Ancient burial customs

In the Roman Empire , the pater familias , the oldest surviving man in the household, was called to the death bed, where he tried to breathe in the dying man's last breath.

It was the duty and duty of the bereaved to bury the deceased. But it was the wish and the law to do this outside the city. Wealthy Romans built their graves along busy roads. They were buried in ornate stone or marble coffins (sarcophagi). The tombs were often surrounded by walls and trees. The Romans generally built the tombs for themselves during their lifetime. Therefore, words such as VF Vivus Facit, VSP Vivus Sibi Posuit appear in ancient inscriptions . Ordinary graves were simple burial sites in the ground and were called hypogea .

The Romans did not preserve their dead. They mostly burned the corpses on a pyre. Often things were burned that were supposed to be of use to the dead in the afterlife.

After the body was cremated, they placed the remains in an urn made of glass, marble, or clay. The urn was then kept in a columbarium (literally “dovecote” because of its appearance), a burial chamber with wall niches for urns. Later cremation or burial within the cities was prohibited for religious as well as civil reasons, so that the priests would not be contaminated by touching a dead person and the houses would not be endangered by the burns.

The burial of an important person could turn into a spectacle. It was organized and carried out by professional undertakers, the libitinarii . After speaking at the forum, the family led a long procession. Actors , dancers , professional mourners employed by the undertakers , a band , and people wearing wax masks of the dead man's famous ancestors accompanied the body to the cemetery. The right to wear these masks in public was eventually restricted to those families whom the magistrate deemed sufficiently worthy.

Nine days after the corpse had been disposed of by burial or cremation, the cena novendialis was celebrated and a libation was poured over the grave or ashes. During this nine-day period the house was considered unclean, funesta , and yew or cypress branches were hung up to ward off evil spirits. At the end of the period, the house was swept to clear the spirit of the dead.

Some Roman holidays served to commemorate the dead of a family, such as the Parentalia from February 13th to 21st and Lemuria (May 9th, 11th and 13th), in which the pater familias presented the spirits ( lares ) with a bean offering tried to appease.

Death in ancient philosophy

Epicurus said: “I have nothing to do with death. I am, is not. If he is, I am not. ” Plato, on the other hand, saw death approaching him differently. For him, philosophizing was also directly related to death. For Plato, the real philosophers strived for death - in a figurative sense: not that they wanted to pass out of life as quickly as possible, but in the manner of leading it. In general, Plato understood death to mean the separation of body and soul. A true philosopher strives for this to a large extent in this life. He seeks pure knowledge; however, the body is more of a hindrance.

Plato understood the desire for death of those who love wisdom not only in a metaphorical way, but also related it to actual death. If the philosopher actually died, his soul, which he was only able to keep imperfectly away from the negative influence of the body in life, can think completely unimpaired.

In contrast to Plato, Epicurus saw death as the loss of all perception and the end of all existence. The insight that every person strives for “ataraxia” - a state of mental equilibrium - formed the starting point of Epicurean philosophy. Philosophizing meant taking care of the health of the soul. If you know that after death there is no punishment for what you have done in life, and it would be pointless to forego something in order to have a better life in the hereafter, this means that you are not afraid of that Must have death. Epicurus saw philosophical knowledge in proving that there is no such thing as immortality: according to his teaching there are soul atoms endowed with reason in the body, which - like the atoms of the body - disperse. Therefore the soul does not live on either.

On the other hand, sober philosophical reflection finds out how one can lead a "pleasurable" life. This means setting the right purposes for ultimately avoiding evil and being happy. For this purpose z. For example, a classification of desires is helpful or the insight that self-sufficiency is reasonable because luxurious objects of pleasure are not always easy to obtain. If they are missing, and one does not find oneself able to make do with bread and water, the pleasurable life comes to an end again.


  • Mathias Pfeiffer: Death and conceptions of the afterlife in ancient Greece. Religious, philosophical and medical aspects , Munich 2007. ISBN 978-3-638-90380-6
  • Helene Schadel: ΘANATOΣ. Studies on the concept of death in ancient philosophy and medicine. Wellm, Pattensen; now at Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg 1975, ISBN 3-921456-01-0 (= Würzburg medical-historical research , 2), (also: Würzburg, Univ, med. Diss., 1974).

See also