A growing number of South Korean women are training to be morticians, a field from which they had long been excluded, amid changing views on gender roles and a rising preference for women’s bodies to be handled by women.
With recent deaths of female celebrities and prominent figures, as well as growing scrutiny of sex crimes against women, gender sensitivity is changing the way families of the deceased bid farewell to their grandmothers, mothers and daughters.
“I felt uncomfortable when my classmates of a different sex touched my body, even when I was fully dressed,” said Park Se-jung, 19, who is in her second year of funeral directing studies. “I sure wouldn’t want them to touch, wash and dress my naked body even if I were dead. I am determined I should be the one bidding those women a proper farewell.”
The trend comes amid growing calls for crackdowns of sexual violence against women, including a rash of hidden-camera crimes, “revenge porn”, and online networks that blackmailed women and girls into sharing sexual and sometimes violent images of themselves.
In the early 2000s, about a third of mortician students in the country were women, but today they make up around 60% of the class, said Lee Jong-woo, a professor of embalming at Eulji University in Seongnam near Seoul.
“With Confucian ideology, death was considered a taboo in South Korea in the past, and had negative perceptions of whether women could handle such work, but the perception has been changing,” Lee said.
Funeral companies say they have been receiving more requests for female morticians.
“Most of the deaths of young people are suicides, and the families of the bereaved, especially if it was suicide and a woman, feel more comfortable if we handle the body,” said Park Bo-ram, a funeral director of seven years.
“I recall a teenaged student, an only child … had committed suicide,” Park said. “Washing and dressing the body, I saw many signs of self-injury on her thigh, but none of her family knew.”
Park recalls that the girl’s parents were immensely grateful, even in the midst of sadness, that a female mortician handled their daughter’s body.
South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the developed world: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, compared with an OECD average of 11.3. That year, it was the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
More than 4,000 women committed suicide in 2019, including young female K-pop artists Koo Hara and Sulli.
In 2016, a quarter of the country’s 6,200 funeral directors were women, and with more than 130,000 girls and women dying each year, requests for female funeral directors are expected to rise further, Korea Employment Information Service said.
Yet some resistance to women in the mortuary business remains.
Shin Hwa-jin, 21, who plans to work at a funeral home after graduation, said she was shocked to hear a female mortician relate a conversation with her mother-in-law.
“Her mother-in-law asked her: ‘How dare you think of cooking my meals with the hands that touched a dead body?’” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m your daughter.”
“No, you’re not. What’s your name? . . .”
“We should get him a tape recorder.”
“He’s human. He needs a human voice.”
“But his is almost gone.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Staring into the face of an undead ghost in a green tweed jacket and flat-cap over toast and cornflakes is unnerving at the best of times; and traumatic at the worst. Especially when that ghost is your father. And the cornflakes have gone soggy.
But unlike gothic novels or films where ghosts happily offer themselves up as symbols of repressed memories, traces of crimes against innocents, and (usually) murderous pasts, this ghost has never crossed over into the realm of the metaphorical. Inconveniently, it decides to remain very, very human. Actually, that depends on your definition of human.
Even more inconvenient is the fact that this ghost refuses to follow the script and disintegrate with the morning light. Instead, it prefers to haunt the modern comforts of an electric armchair; swapping dreary castles for daytime television and crumbling dungeons for motorised beds.
And that’s just the start of my day living with a living ghost. Or Alzheimer’s as it’s otherwise known. Or, more correctly, my father’s Alzheimer’s.
Living with Alzheimer’s, both as a carer and sufferer, is a growing phenomenon in the UK. Often confused with dementia, Alzheimer’s refers to a physical disease which affects the brain while dementia is simply a term for a number of symptoms associated with the progressive decline of brain function. These symptoms can include memory loss, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and challenges with language and perception. There are over 400 types of dementia—with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia as the most common forms. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of the UK, dementia is now the leading cause of death in the UK with someone developing it every three minutes. Alzheimer’s is classified as a “life-limiting” illness according to the NHS, but sufferers can live for many years after the initial diagnosis, depending on the progression of the disease. Divided into three stages, early, middle, and late, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s gradually become more severe as the disease progresses and more parts of the brain are affected.
In the early stages, having Alzheimer’s as a companion wasn’t too unpleasant; the emptiness hadn’t fully taken over and I had more human than spectre to talk to. I could still pretend to have a normal(ish) life with only the minor inconvenience of a (mostly) present parent, despite the occasional wandering through doors unexpectedly and lunatic outbursts. The human part kept his smiling eyes, watching the world orbit around the sweat-stained tea-pot and apple tart. But the Alzheimer’s relentless erasure of my father left a morbid spectre sitting in his chair at the kitchen table.
In the middle stages, my father’s personality and identity dropped away like discarded clothes. His manner of speech was the first to surrender to the disease. Forgetting words rapidly metamorphosised into hours of repetitive questioning, as if seeking to ground himself in concrete knowledge of the now while his fingers grabbed vainly at a slipping sense of reality. The final stages of the disease witnessed his childish cries for help without knowing what or who he wanted.
“Gone childish” is an archaic term that was once used to describe dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers before these diseases were better understood. Capturing the vulnerability these diseases inflict on their sufferers, the phrase sums up the centrality of memory to the human experience. If our identities are formed by our experiences, and these experiences are stored in our memories, shaping who we are and how we make decisions, what can we do when we have no memory? Without a roadmap of precedence, how can you plan for the future or know yourself without knowing how you got to where you are now? Like children, Alzheimer’s sufferers lose a sense of the past and futurity. They become transfixed in the present like ghosts trapped in limbo.
The last stages of my father’s disease cemented his role in the family home as the new phantasm. Like a well-behaved, conventional ghost he punctuated our nights with night-walking, ghoulish shrieks, hallucinations, and knocking on doors at all hours while the day-time witnessed empty eyes peering out from behind the safety of a purple blanket. Innocent of blame, our ghost blocked our escape from the house. For fear of hurting himself, we couldn’t leave him alone but grew resentful for being held hostage by a madman with no memory or awareness of his own actions.
After being stripped of memory and identity, my father’s Alzheimer’s left a shell of body; a ghastly reminder of the person that had once inhabited it. Bereft of the markers of humanity, this animated mannequin asked, “What makes up a human? Is it the mind? Or the body? And what happens when you take one from the other?”
Researchers have identified the cause of Alzheimer’s as the build-up of abnormal structures in the brain called ‘plaques’ or ‘tangles’. These structures cause damage to brain cells and can block neuro-transmitters, preventing cells from communicating with each other. Over time, parts of the brain begin to shrink with the memory areas most commonly affected first. Why these build-ups occur or what triggers them is not yet understood, but researchers now know that it begins many years before symptoms appear.
Ancient Roman and Greek philosophers associated the symptoms dementia with the ageing process. However, it was not until 1901 when the German psychiatrist, Alois Alzheimer, identified the first case of the disease. Medical researchers during the twentieth century began to realise that the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s were not a normal part of ageing and quickly adopted the name of Alzheimer’s disease to describe the pattern of symptoms relating to this type of neurological degeneration.
No physical markers like the puckered lines of surgery scars or the uneven hobble of a game leg signposted my father’s declining health. But the slow creep of this living death brought on grief long before his body was expected to fail. Without the essence of the person, all of their quirks and curiosities, which once animated a familiar body, how do you grieve for someone’s loss before they have died? And how do you cope with the guilt?
This type of grief is usually referred to as anticipatory grief. It is a type of grief that is experienced prior to death or a significant loss. Typically, it occurs when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening illness, but it can also happen in the face of a personal diagnosis. However, it can often trigger feelings of guilt because people feel ashamed for grieving their loved one’s death before they are dead.
With my father’s memory gone, my connection with him was broken. During the later stages of the disease he forgot my name and my existence. Fading from my life, his body remained as a perverse mockery of the person that had once inhabited it. Now all that haunts me are the memories of peering over barley stalks before the autumn harvests at a grizzled old farmer in a flat cap and tweed jacket, a hand reaching out to help guide the walk home.
— What physician-assisted death is like for a family
Margaret Handley wrote the essay so her children understood their grandmother’s experience and to help others learn about physician-assisted dying.
By Meghan Holohan
It started with weakness and pain when walking. Then Jacqueline Shapiro had a deep lesion on her leg before she broke it, oddly, and doctors struggled to set it. The pain medications caused her to have bad reactions and her energy waned. Eventually doctors learned that the 85-year-old had lymphoma. She underwent three grueling months of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but it only left her exhausted and feeling worse.
“It can cause delusions and a sort of psychosis. And it just was horrible, just horrible. And it was really hard for her to get her pain stabilized,” Margaret Handley, her daughter who is an epidemiologist living in the San Fransisco Bay area, told TODAY. “If you looked at those episodes medically, they were going well, but it was just part of an escalating discomfort for her. She increasingly felt like ‘I don’t think this is a good place for me to be.’”
Shapiro worried about spending the rest of her life undergoing painful treatments that might not even cure her cancer.
“She didn’t want to be lying there dwindling while people take care of her,” Handley said.
When a palliative care doctor visited Shapiro to discuss her pain, they started talking about California’s End of Life Act. People with terminal illnesses, who meet a certain criteria, can request drugs to aid dying, according to the California Department of Public Health. Similar legislation exists in eight other states. Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit working to improve patient rights and individual choice at the end of life, recently reported that Brittany Maynard’s advocacy of “death with dignity” inspired the passage of medical aid dying laws in Washington, D.C, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine.
Shapiro met those requirements. Hearing about the option of medically assisted death seemed to lessen her burden.
“She told me right away after the doctor left, ‘That’s what I’m going to do — physician-assisted dying. I don’t want to compete with this disease — that’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life,’” she wrote. “I sat with her and my sadness and then, over the next few days, we set upon the logistics to put her right-to-choose into motion.”
While her oncologist thought there was a possibility that the cancer could go into remission, Shapiro wasn’t sure if she could endure more treatment. Then she spoke with a doctor from the physician-assisted dying group, who described how the process works. He noted that many people request the drugs but don’t ultimately go through with it. Handley felt impressed by how all three doctors acted when advising her mother.
“I don’t think that (the doctors’ input) affected her decision,” Handley said. “But it was also much better that she heard them and witnessed them doing their work and felt like she was part of the narrative, not outside of it.”
Shapiro loved nature and the forest. As a young woman, she spent her summers at Yosemite and lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains until age made a remote living situation a little tougher. She had a garden with plants from the forest and an ornery cat name, Darcy, named after Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice.” While she was sick, she worried about his well-being. Making the decision for physician-assisted death put her mind at ease about what would happen to her pet, her plants and her life. This allowed Shapiro to say goodbye to her family the way she wanted, watching nature shows and cat videos, enjoying one another’s company.
“We were lucky to know it was coming and to be able to say let’s have these moments together,” Handley said.
Handley and her brother sat with their mother, with Darcy on her lap. As Handley read the poem, “Evening” by Rainer Maria Rilke, her mom passed away.
“It was a really powerful experience to be able to sit with someone who is making this choice,” Handley said. “That was a good experience for us to share.”
Handley said she wrote the essay because she felt there were so few personal stories about what physician-assisted death is really like. She also hoped that by sharing the experience her three children would also better understand her mom’s choice and experience.
“I wanted to write down what happened with my mom’s decision-making so that they would understand,” she said. “I thought this was just adding a little more real personal experience of what (physician-assisted death) looks like in one given situation.”
Demonstrating grief through wailing and song has long been a historic, sacred part of honouring and remembering the dead. From the Chinese to the Assyrians, Irish and Ancient Greeks, oral rituals of outward mourning were a responsibility that fell (and continue to fall) to women.
In Ancient Greece, while women may have lacked political and social freedom, the realm of mourning belonged to them. Their role in remembering the dead granted them their only position of power in a society where they possessed no autonomy. Yet this power was also believed to supersede mortal constraints, giving women the ability to do something that men could not.
The Greek funeral was composed of three parts: the prothesis, or preparation and laying out of the body; the ekphora, or transportation to the place of burial; and the burial of the body or the entombment of cremated remains. It was during the prothesis that the women began their ritual of lament. First, they cleansed the corpse, anointed it and decorated it with aromatic garlands as it lay atop its kline (bier). Once the body was prepared, scores of female relatives gathered around it to beat their breasts and tear the hair from their scalps as they sang funeral songs. They wished to communicate the awful weight of their grief in order to satisfy the dead, whom they believed could hear and judge their cries. In contrast, the men kept their distance to salute the dead, physically signifying their separation from the realm that belonged to women. Some art from the Geometric period suggests they may have joined the female mourners in writhing to the lament, though they were spared from the excruciating gesture of ripping out their hair.
The funeral song served as an extension of the physical pain women inflicted upon themselves during the prothesis. Its purpose was to communicate a cry of uncontrollable pain, a hysteric melody that was believed to be rooted in feminine emotions; thus, only women could be the vessels for this pain. In the depths of their sorrow and self-torture, female mourners in the Geometric period would have sung a melody from one of the four major funeral song categories: threnos, epikedeion, ialemos or goos. These songs were personal and meaningful to the bereaved. In her book Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (1979), which, through the art they have left behind, analyses how the Ancient Greeks viewed death, Emily Vermeule writes that goos was the most intense kind of funeral song. It might have been reserved for lovers or close family members, as its theme was centred on the relationship between two lives shared, the one now lost.
Leading the funeral lament was the song leader, also called the eksarkhos gooio, or the chief mourner. In early times, she was a professional mourner, but could also be the mother or close female relative of the dead. The song leader served as the liaison between those who mourned and those who had passed, guiding the bereaved through the proper course of remembrance in order to mollify the dead. As she led the female mourners in lament, she was careful to cradle the head of the corpse. Touch was necessary in order to open the ears of the dead. But once the ears were opened, the living women had to tread carefully. Not only could the dead hear funeral laments sung for them during the prothesis, they could also determine whether the presence of the living was good or malevolent. This is the reason, writes Robert Garland in The Greek Way of Death (1985), that Odysseus is advised against participating in Ajax’s funeral. Mourners entrusted their song leader with the responsibility of appeasing the dead to ensure their smooth transition into the spirit world.
As time went on, the role of female song leader would serve as the predecessor to an occult offshoot, the goes, who used song as a vehicle to transcend mortal constraints. Under the goes, funeral songs were no longer songs: they were spells, used to lure the dead back to earth. The goes was akin to a witch, due to her supernatural powers; she had even mastered the art of necromancy and could temporarily bring corpses back to life. Yet, even before the goes and the eksarkhos gooio, women in Ancient Greece had ties to the occult side of death. If the eksarkhos gooio was the mother of this occult tradition and the goes the maiden, the egkhystristriai was the crone. Before the classical period, the egkhystristriai was believed to have officiated at the burial of the body. Like an occult high priestess, her powers stemmed from the ritual of making blood sacrifices to the dead. Later, these sacrifices turned into the more modest ritual of offering libations, exemplified as Antigone pours offerings over her brother Polyneikes after she performs rites over his body.
By the fifth century BC mourning rituals had become less elaborate and deliberately reduced the importance of the female role. The number of female lamenters who surrounded the dead dwindled from scores of close relatives to only a few. Laments became more antiphonal and grew to involve men. Gestures such as tearing the hair were replaced by the symbolic gesture of cutting the hair short. These later changes suggest that the Greeks believed their dead were in less need of appeasement, eradicating the need for a song leader with supernatural inclinations. But they attempted to diminish the role that women had in the death process, thus dismantling a space in which women held dominance. In the classical period, women were relegated to the background of the funerary ritual, writes Maria Serena Mirto in Death in the Greek World (2012), because men feared it would threaten social cohesion and their desire for death to be pro patria, for one’s country. This is evident from Greek state funeral records, such as that in Kerameikos, the Athens cemetery, in which female lamenters are only briefly mentioned, suddenly peripheral to the ritual they had previously orchestrated.
The trend of removing women from the centre of death is not exclusive to Ancient Greece. While some cultures, such as the Assyrians, fought to preserve the role of female lamenters, others have been unable to do so.As Richard Fitzpatrick reported in the Irish Examiner in 2016, in Ireland, the tradition of female keeners, who wail in grief, began to die out in the mid-20th century. In the United States, male funeral directors replaced the long-standing tradition of female layers-out. Women were left behind, as the funeral directors attempted and succeeded at monetising the death industry, a legacy that continues to haunt the recently bereaved, who must deal with costly funeral arrangements.
Today, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a death renaissance, spearheaded by morticians, activists and artisans alike – a majority of whom are women. Ancient mourning rituals and traditions are resurging. Perhaps the role of the female song leader as a spiritual caster of spells will find its way back, too.
Arun Shourie is an unflinching seeker. He has an exemplary ability to face the toughest questions. After a bracing meditation on the problem of suffering in Does He Know a Mother’s Heart (2011), Shourie now turns to Preparing for Death. There used to be a joke that the purpose of literature is to prepare you for the good life, while the purpose of philosophy is to prepare you for the good death. But it is hard to understand our own extinction. Broadly speaking, two diametrically opposite views are invoked to reconcile us to death. One is that we don’t really die; in some form, through an incorporeal soul or something, we continue to exist. The other unflinchingly accepts that we just are evanescent matter and nothing else. Both approaches address the question of dying by simply saying “there is nothing to it.” There is something to this strategy, but it cannot make sense of the significance of life. It seems we can either make sense of life or of death, but not of both.
Shourie’s book takes a brilliantly different pathway. The book has three distinct themes. The first, the most powerful and meditative section of the book is not so much about death as the process of dying. He documents with detail, “great souls” experiencing the often painful dissolution of their own body — the Buddha, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi, and Vinoba Bhave, and, as a cameo, Kasturba. All of them give lie to Sigmund Freud’s dictum that no one can contemplate their own death. But what emerges from these accounts is not so much the conclusion that they all faced death unflinchingly; most of them have a premonition. It is also not about capturing the moment where the good death is leaving the world calmly. It is rather what the suffering body does to consciousness, all the memories and hard decisions it forces on us.
But the relationship between the body and consciousness goes in two different directions at once. On the one hand this suffering is productive: consciousness works through this pain. On the other hand, even the most exalted soul does not escape the utter abjection of the body. The most poignant moment in this section is not the calm and plenitude with which these exalted souls face death; it is the moments where even the most powerful souls are reduced to abjection by the constraints of the body. The only one rare occasion where Ramana Maharshi ever loses his cool is in his now utter dependence on others for most basic bodily functions. The problem of dying is not that you cannot ignore the body; it is that the body does not ignore you.
The second theme of the book is to take a sharp scalpel to false comforters of all religions and philosophies that promise the everlasting soul, or the preservation of bodies only to subject them to torment in hell. This metaphysical baggage makes dealing with death harder and is a total distraction. This section is less generous in its interpretive sympathies. The third theme of the book, interspersed in various parts, is about the discipline of dealing with your own body as it is in the process of dying. The book impressively marshals a variety of sources, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with its incredible imaginative exercises that make you take in the whole of existence, to Jain sources of Sallekhana, and various meditative techniques to inculcate a certain kind of mindfulness. But mostly one gets the sense that the ultimate preparation for death is simply love, something that can endow the evanescent moment with significance.
But this is a seeker’s book. It is in parts profound probing, honest but not dogmatic. Its immense value comes from the fact that the book is both a book and an anthology on death, with extracts from not just the words of those experiencing the process of dying, but an astonishing range of sources: from Fernando Pessoa to Michel de Montaigne, from yoga to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For the politically inclined, there is an ambivalently revealing account of the Prime Minister’s visit to Shourie while he was in the ICU. All throughout, the book is laced with judiciously selected poetry: the startling moment where Gandhi recites the Urdu couplet to Manu: Hai baha- e-bagh-e duniya chand roz/ Dekh lo iska tamasha chand roz, a register you might associate more with Guru Dutt than Gandhi. There is a lot of Kabir, of Basho poetry and haikus. One stunning one: Circling higher and higher/At last the hawk pulls its shadow/From the world.
This haiku caught my attention because I happened to be reading a stunning essay by Arindam Chakrabarti at the same time, “Dream, Death and Death Within A Dream”, in Imaginations of Death and the Beyond in India and Europe (2018), a volume edited by Sudhir Kakar and Gunter Blamberger, that reads as a great philosophical complement to this one. That volume has a powerful piece by another brilliant philosopher, Jonardan Ganeri, on illusions of immortality that deals with a source Shourie cites at length: Pessoa. Chakrabarti’s essay ends with the insight of Yoga Vashishtha: To be born is to have been dead once and to be due to die again. Shourie is perhaps right: Can we really unravel what it means for the hawk to pull its shadow from the world? Does the shadow reappear if it flies lower?
One needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand the mind frame of the ancient Greeks and to understand why they did the things that they did. Also, one needs to live an ancient Greek death following all the rites of passage and the burial laws.
The ancient Greeks held certain ideas about death. One of the most characteristic motifs that people find on ancient Greek tombstones is the handshake between the living and dead. Both figures invariably exhibit a dignified calm. That’s what Greek tragedy is all about—looking death squarely in the eye. As a Greek, they knew that terrible things happen; and they knew, too, that by confronting them head-on, they’d be able to deal with them and get on with life. One could posit that the Greeks got it just right.
But one needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand it. It’s an unpleasant thought, but there’s no escaping it if one wants to fully experience the other side of history.
The Role of a Physician in Death
Let’s assume one is dying in one’s home, surrounded by one’s relatives, including young children. There won’t be any physician at hand to give painkillers.
A physician may have offered treatment in the earlier stages of sickness, but once it became inevitable that there could only be one outcome, the medical profession had nothing to offer anymore.
It’s also extremely unlikely that a physician would be called in to put one out of one’s misery by euthanasia, a coined word of Greek etymology meaning ‘good death’, but which has no ancient Greek equivalent. In fact, the Hippocratic Oath, which was probably widely adopted, enjoined upon those physicians who took it “not to administer a poison to anybody who asked for one and not to propose such a course”. So let’s hope that one’s final illness is short and painless.
The Role of Gods in Death
The poet Keats has a wonderful line in Ode to a Nightingale: “I have been half in love with easeful death”. The Greeks conceived of easeful death in the form of the God Apollo, who came to strike them down with his so-called ‘gentle arrows’. That’s the best that he or any other of the gods had to offer. They certainly didn’t have any consolation to give someone.
In Euripides’ play the Hippolytus, when Hippolytus is dying, the goddess Artemis, to whom he has devoted himself exclusively all his life and with whom he’s had a very close relationship, bids him farewell. She explains to him that it’s not lawful for a deity to be present at the death because the pollution that a corpse releases would taint her.
The one god who may have taken some slight interest in the fate of the dying is the healing God Asclepius. When Socrates passes from this world to the next in Plato’s dialogue the Crito, he has this to say, “I owe a cock to Asclepius. See that it’s paid.” Cocks were sacrificed to Asclepius. Socrates may be indicating that Asclepius eased his passing, although it’s possible, too, that he’s merely suggesting philosophically that death is a ‘cure’ for life.
The First Rite of Passage: Prothesis
in ancient Greece, as soon as one died, the women in one’s family began keening and ululating so that everyone in the neighborhood knew of the individual’s demise. It was the women, too, who took charge of one’s body and prepared it for burial. They closed one’s mouth and eyes, tied a chin strap around one’s head and chin to prevent the jaw from sagging; they washed the whole body, anointed it with olive oil; they clothed the body and wrapped it in a winding sheet, leaving only one’s head exposed.
Then they laid the body on a couch with one’s head propped up on a pillow and one’s feet facing the door. After getting all this done, they sang dirges in one’s honor.
This is the scene that is depicted on the very earliest Greek vases with figurative decoration. It’s called the prothesis, which literally means the laying out of the body. It represents the first stage in the process that will take one from this world to the next, ‘from here to there’, as the Greeks put it. Meanwhile, relatives and friends would call at the house and join in the grieving.
The Second Rite of Passage: Ekphora
The second rite of passage is the ekphora. Ekphora means literally ‘the carrying out of one’s body’—specifically from one’s home to one’s place of burial. According to Athenian law, the ekphora had to take place within three days of one’s death, although in hot weather it’s likely that it would have taken place much sooner. The ekphora had to take place before sunrise so that it wouldn’t create a public nuisance.
If one was wealthy, one’s body would be transported in a cart or carriage drawn by horses. This scene is also depicted on the earliest vases with figurative decoration. Professional undertakers might also be employed to bear the corpse and break up the ground for burial. These professionals were known as ‘ladder men’ klimakophoroi, because they’d lay one’s body on a ladder, which they carried horizontally.
If professional undertakers were employed, they wouldn’t have any physical contact with the family members before this phase. The Greeks would have been shocked and appalled by the idea of handing over one’s body to professionals to prepare it for burial.
The Third Rite of Passage: Burial
It was one’s relatives who conducted the burial service. No priests were present either. Priests were debarred for exactly the same reason that Artemis absented herself from the dying Hippolytus, so as not to incur pollution. Because if they incurred pollution, they might transmit it to the gods.
Absolutely nothing is known about the details of the burial service. Truth be told, it’s not even known if there was a burial service as such. If any traditional words were spoken, they were not recorded. Both inhumation and cremation were practiced, although cremation, being more costly, was seen as more prestigious. If one was cremated, then one’s relatives would gather the ashes and place them in an urn, which they then would bury along with the grave gifts.
The commonest grave gift was pottery. In fact, that’s why so many high-quality Greek vases have survived intact—because they were placed intact in the ground.
Over time, however, the Greeks became more stingy. Chances are, if one died in the 4th century B.C., all one would get is a couple of oil flasks known as lêkythoi filled with olive oil—olive oil was regarded as a luxury item. Some Greeks, however, were so stingy that they purchased lêkythoi with a smaller internal container to save them the expense of filling the whole vase with oil. Supposedly, they thought the dead wouldn’t notice.
As soon as the filling of the grave was done, they’d erect a grave marker over it. After completing the third and final rite of passage, all the mourners would return to the grieving home for a commemorative banquet.
The Burial Laws
Since one’s corpse was regarded as a source of pollution—the Greek word for the pollution is miasma, which means much the same in English—one had to be buried outside the city walls. In the ancient Greece, burial within a settlement was extremely rare after the 8th century B.C. The same was true of Rome. The earliest Roman law code, the Law of the Twelve Tables, dated 450 B.C., contains the provision, “The dead shall not be buried or burnt inside the city.”
It is not certain, but the origins of the belief in pollution may be connected with a kind of primitive sense of hygiene. Dead one’s relatives and anyone else who had come into contact with the corpse were debarred from participation in any activities outside the home until the corpse had undergone purification.
Reintegration into the community for mourners didn’t take place until several weeks after the funeral. One’s relatives also had to take measures to prevent the polluting effect of one’s corpse from seeping into the community. That included providing a bowl of water brought from outside the house so that visitors could purify themselves on leaving.
Common Questions About Living the Ancient Greek Death
Q: What are the three stages of an ancient Greek funeral?
The three stages are the laying out or the prothesis, the funeral procession or the ekphora, and the burial or the Interment.
Q: How did the Greeks honor the dead?
Greeks honored the dead by following the three rites of passage, by building the tombs in Ceramicus, the Potter’s Quarter, and by offering the grave goods.
Q: How did Greeks prepare for the afterlife?
Greeks prepared for the afterlife by following the three rites of passage and offering the grave goods.
Q: What was the burial law in ancient Greece?
According to the burial law in ancient Greece, one had to be buried outside the city walls.
As the northern hemisphere moves into the winter, the wind blows in the reminder that so much will be lost. I’ve seen the posts of people I don’t know, but who are close to those I do, sharing stories of family members getting sick or dying of COVID.
It’s getting closer. Faster. The air is thicker with uncertainty.
Of realization that there is no one coming to save us from this virus.
Because there is no quick fix. There is no perfect protection.
(I know this is grim.)
I know these times are more dangerous because of the fear. I have seen it cause even the most steady folks to sway. Some to risky choices. Some to conspiracy.
I know I am in a moment that history will look back on and point out all of the wrongs.
But this is not a measured conversation where I can hide behind lovely words.
There are people dying.
Not Enough Space for the Names
I was on a social media page and someone talking about an altar with candles for the dead on their heart. And that there wasn’t enough space for all of the candles.
After all, more than 250,000 in the United States (and many more by the time this is posted) requires a large space. An impossibly large expanse of holding.
I want to light candles for all of you. I want to brighten this time with your names.
And I want to hold space for the ones who have watched. Watched loved ones die. Said goodbyes over video. Begged to be in the room only to be turned away.
Safety. Not you too.
What is Coming (Soon)
In the beginning, I read a lot about anticipatory grief. The knowing that loss is coming and not being able to stop it.
My heart remembers when my dad was diagnosed with COVID. And the days of blurry, fuzzy thinking. Trying to make decisions as a family about what we would do if…
Touch and go. Faith and fear.
Prayers. Offerings. Outbursts.
I have a stubborn heart, I know. I have clung to believing people are good overall. They will look out for each other. I’ve seen it. I have relationships that have proven it.
But when I look outside my carefully curated community…
I am likely not sharing anything that hasn’t been said. I know there are many more that feel this way. Alone. Helpless. Quietly screaming.
Arguing with ‘friends’ on Facebook doesn’t help. Posting the millionth meme about wearing masks doesn’t ease the tension. Staying home only gives more space for the feelings to become louder.
There is grief around the corner. There is grief in the hallway. There is grief in the pillow underneath my head at night.
Because it is everywhere.
Building a Relationship with Grief (Before)
Whether you have lost or not, whether you have been impacted or not, the grief will be a tsunami. I have been holding back my own waves because I don’t know where they will crash. Into you? Into me? Across the yard?
I have taken to sitting with grief now. I see it as an unscreamed scream. An unhugged hug. The empty place into which love pours and pours and pours.
I sit and I ask grief what it needs.
I have an altar to grief. Where I sit. Where I have an amethyst. Where I have bones.
My heart holds an altar too. Memories live there.
I sit at the altar. Sometimes, I weep. Sometimes, I am silent. Sometimes, I sing.
Sometimes. Nothing comes. Time between time.
I write poems to grief. I write letters.
Even when the words feel empty or insignificant.
The Arrival of Grief
And I realize I am preparing for grief’s arrival. All of the ways I have pushed it back, saying that since I can’t grieve in community, I will be patient.
I will wait. I must wait.
It is the thing these moments require.
The space before.
But there are a lot of echoes waiting to be screamed screams.
I imagine you have come here for answers. For solutions. For spells. For prayers.
I just show up for it. I make time for grief. Just as I would for any other relationship.