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Cult of the Dead and Burial Methods in the History of Italy

The months of October and November are peculiar: Summer is, in most of the country, a distant memory, yet, the light and brightness brought by winter snow still have to come. These are weeks characterized by the first, true cold of the season, the early setting of darkness, the scents – if you live in the countryside, that is – of damp earth and fallen leaves. Nature, in October and November, puts on her rich autumnal cloak, heavy with red, orange and golden embroideries. Sometimes, when thinking of such settings, it comes as no wonder that this time of the year has been, since the beginning of times, consacrated to the special care and worship of the departed: muffled sounds, dramatic, yet slightly melacholic colors, the fact itself that nature is in the process to put itself to sleep for the winter, all appear to point at a human necessity to think of the Great Beyond.

This feeling, indeed, this human necessity, has been typical of all ages and cultures: today, we can still gather information about how important the cult of the dead was in the past through an analysis of how people would care and bury them. Because of how fundamental and rich in different cultures and habits the Italian Peninsula has been since prehistory, the country offers, still today, a plethora of examples related to how the dead were treated, buried and worshipped in ancient times.

So, let’s take this curious trip into the cultural and anthropological history of Italy.

Burial Methods in Ancient Italy: A General Introduction

Since the dawn of civilization, the cult and worship of the dead has been central to the spiritual growth of each civilization. Archaeology has demonstrated that two types of burial practices were used in Italy in ancient timescremation and inumation, just like today. Both practices were widely spread all over the civilized world, and often were used contemporarily, as it happened for the Romans, who both cremated and buried their dead.

Cremation was used by the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans and also by the ancient Pre-Colombian people of the Yucatan peninsula. Because fire was considered a puryfing means, cremation was thought to cleanse the soul of the deceased from all forms of material desires. This was often mirrored by the symbolic breaking of material objects, such as weapons or crockery, which were then left in the burial area.

Inumation was favored by the Egyptians, the Incas, the Maoris and Pre-Colombian people of Peru, in particular the Jivaros. It was also used by Middle Eastern civilizations such as the Babylonians and the Assyrians. The habit of burying the whole body of the deceased was based on the belief that eternal life could only be achieved if the dead could use what had helped temporal life: food, servants, clothes and, above all, the body itself. For this reason, it was often treated to be preserved as long as possible (think of the mummies).

Regardless to whether cremation or inumation was chosen, the general idea was that the dead demanded proper care and, if that was not given, they would quite happily come back to this world to haunt their relatives and families. Fear, then, as well as love, moved people to worship the souls of their loved ones.

The Earliest Times: The Proto-historical Necropolis of Pantalica

cult of dead and burial methods italy
Necropolis of Pantalica (natursports at depositphotos.com) One of the first example of cult of the dead and burial methods in Italy.

The Necropolis of Pantalica, in the Syracuse province, is one of the most relevant proto-historical (that is, of a civilization whose culture is still between prehistory and history, hence hasn’t produced any written material, yet, but the existence of which has been noted in writing by already litterate civilizations) sites in Sicily. Pantalica represents an essential link to understand the dynamics of transition between the Bronze and the Iron Age on the island, and it’s by far the largest indigenous site found on its eastern part. Because of its location, archaeologists attributed it to the Siculi, one of the many Pre-Roman people inhabiting the country. It was, very likely, created between the 13th and the 7th centuries BC.

What strikes immediately is the fact that nothing of the living settlement of Pantalica is left: this is because, very likely, huts and homes were built with perishable materials and didn’t survive the passing of time. Its necropolis, however, is another pair of hands: the Siculi of Pantalica left us more than 5000 tombs excavated straight into the rock of canions formed by  the rivers Anapo and Bottigliera. It’s a grandiose, breathtaking piece of history, which has become part of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.

The first archaeologist to hold an excavation in the area was Paolo Orsi, whose work unhearted several beautiful artefacts, kept today in a museum dedicated to him in Syracuse. The necropolis developed all along the rocky walls of the area, each section belonging to a particular time in the history and development of the Siculi civilization. On the summit of the plateau along which the tombs were created, lay the foundations of a grandiose structure, built with megalithic blocks: the archaeolgists who discovered it called it the Anaktoron or “The Prince Palace.” Interestingly, these particular remains helped historians to learn more about the Siculi and their potential connections with other Mediterranean cultures: it seems, in fact, that the type of technologies and knowledge used to create the Anaktoron were far superior to those largely known by indigenous people, which may point to a potential interaction between the Siculi and the Myceneans from Greece.

The necropolis, along with the beautiful valle dell’Anapo nearby, can be visited through several different itineraries. The best of them, especially if archaeology is of interest to you, is the one starting from Ferla and the Stretta di Filiporto, which’ll lead you through the necropolis up to the Anaktoron. If you rather drive, you can follow an itinerary that reaches all most relevant points of the necropolis by car. If you’re a trekking enthusiast, you should check out the many hill paths running through the necropolis, which also lead to interesting bizantine time settlements.

Closer to Rome: The Etruscan Necropolises 

Etruscan burial methods: an alignment of dice shaped tombs in the necropolis of the Banditaccia (tombe a edicola)
Etruscan burial methods: an alignment of dice shaped tombs in the necropolis of the Banditaccia (tombe a edicola) Ph. Nedu Dunn on wikicommons

Etruscans worshipped their dead and had an enormous respect for the afterlife. It’s for this reason, common to all civilizations and individuals, that the need to guarantee proper burial to the deceased originated. It was also essential for them to provide the deceased with a manner to keep in touch and relate with the world of the living: in other words, the Etruscans thought that the deceased would keep on living in his or her tomb. This belief was embodied by the habit of creating tombs that looked like homes and that, just like a living dwelling, would hold furniture, objects, personal and precious belongings. The architecture of these earlier Etruscan tombs was similar to that of their homes: constructed upon a circular plant with large stone blocks, their roofs were mock domes created by diminishing the circumference of the building while it rose, and by closing it up with a flat stone. The burial chamber was usually accessible through a corridor, along which food offerings were left by the living to the dead.

This type of graves were replaced by underground tombs, often excavated on the sides of local hills, called hypogeum tombs. If they were, on the other hand, excavated on flat ground, then covered with stones and soil, they were called tumuli. Both hypogea and tumuli were characterized by a central room, accessed through a long corridor, from which other rooms could be reached. This created a more complex structure, comparable to a family mausoleum, where several members of the same family would be buried. A third type of tomb was that called a edicola, where small, rectangular stone buildings, surmounted by a slightly slanted roof, hosted one or more burial chambers.

Archaeologists who excavated the Etruscan necropolises of Tarquinia and Cerveteri came across clothes, weapons, jewels and many every day life’s objects. Etruscan tombs were also intricately decorated, their frescoes representing scenes symbolic of life: banquets, athletic games, feasts were all favorite subjects.

Since the 5th century BC, the Etruscans’ cult of the dead became closer to that of the Greek, and the creation within their set of spiritual beliefs of a proper, underground location of the Kingdom of the Dead (the Greek Hades) – as well as of a proper set of divinities related to Death and its kingdom – is witness to it. The spiritual complexity of Greek religion was embraced by the Etruscans, who changed their cult for the dead accordingly. Such evolution was mirrored also in the construction and architecture of the tombs themselves, as it has been mentioned above.

Etruscan tombs at Ostia Antica

Roma Caput Mundi

So far, we’ve discussed the funerary habits of Pre-Roman people and touched tangentially, by citing them in relation with the Etruscans’, those of the Greeks who, we must remember, had been stationed in the South of Italy and Sicily since the 8th century BC. What did, however, the Romans make of the cult of the dead? How did they deal with the different procedures of burial and how were their tombs? It’s thanks to an in-depth analysis of classical Latin literature and, of course, to archaeological findings, that we’re today able to understand how the most beloved of all Italian ancestors took care of the faithful departed.

The family would gather around the dying relative and, after his or her passing, mourning would be expressed through ritual crying and weeping. Afterwards, the body of the deceased was prepared for burial: it was washed, rubbed with essential oils and dressed. A small coin was placed in the dead’s mouth, so that s/he would be able to pay Charon his fare. The body was now ready for the wake, which could last for a period between one and seven days; after it, the funeral would take place. A procession composed by the deceased’s relatives – all rigorously dressed in black – and, in the case of wealthy members of society, also by paid mourners, followed the body outside the city’s walls to the place of burial. This is an important point: ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, the Romans and the Jewish people of Palestine, regarded a corpse, or its ashes, as an impure vessel, able to taint the living. For this reason, burial was not allowed within the city itself, but had to take place outside its walls. This was to create issues in later centuries, when Christianity and one of its most popular cults, that of saints, were to take over the Empire by storm.

Once the burial site was reached, the body was usually cremated and its ashes preserved in a specially prepared urn. Although cremation was a favored method of burial for the Romans, they also used inumation relatively often, especially when the deceased belonged to lower classes of society. The funeral was followed by a series of rituals aimed at cleansing the relatives from the prolonged contact with a corpse, as well as legally finalyzing the funeral procedures. On the very day of the funeral, the family would consume a meal by the tombs of the deceased (the silicernium). Nine days after the burial, another meal (the cena novenalis) would take place to mark the official end of the mourning period.

In Rome, the dead were worshipped almost as demi-gods, and were particularly important for the spiritual well-being of their families. They were remembered privately on the day of their birthday, and publicly during two distinct festivals, the Parentalia and the Lemuria. The first were privately held celebrations in honor of the family’s dead; the latter were, on the other hand, celebrated by the whole nation and had the goal to exorcise the souls of the dead to refrain them from harming the living.

Burial Methods in Italy: the tomba dei Valerii (160 AD, ca), one of the mausolea in the Parco Tombe della via Latina
Burial Methods in Italy: the tomba dei Valerii (160 AD, ca), one of the mausolea in the Parco Tombe della via Latina. (wikimedia.org)

Roman Tombs: Their Structure

As it happened for all well-off people in every society, the wealthy of Rome liked mausolea as their final resting place. They were usually built, as we said, outside the city walls, along the main roads leading from Rome to other relevant towns of the Empire (see, for instance, the Parco Archeologico delle Tombe di Via Latina). They were usually constructed using heavily cemented, small stone blocks in an opus incertum pattern, and tufa was preferred to marble for their decoration. The interior was complex and often characterized by the presence of several burial chambers, as these buildings were usually for families, rather than single individuals. These rooms were small in size, usually rectangular and had a vaulted ceiling. In them, the urn containing the cremated remains of the deceased was kept. Many are the mausolea still extant and visible, all around Rome and its surroundings: some of the best known are the Mausoleo di Augustothe Sepolcro di Priscilla and, of course, Castel Sant’Angelowhich was built on the existing mausoleum of the Emperor Adrian.

The Mausoleum of Augustus, representation of one of the most used methods of burials in Rome
The Mausoleum of Augustus, representation of one of the most used methods of burials in Rome (Ph. Briséis on wikimedia.org)

Whoever could not afford mausolea (the majority of people, in fact), was usually interred in less flamboyantly built necropolises, such as the Necropoli del Tempio di Antonino Pio e Faustina, the Necropoli dell’Esquilino and the Necropoli Vaticana. Here, burial would take place underground and the urns containing the deceased’s remains were usually interred with several objects useful for his or her life in the afterworld.

A communal Roman tomb, explored by Historian Mary Beard

Christian Burials in Italy

When thinking of how Christianity entered the world of Rome, we often make the mistake to believe it happened very suddenly and that, even more strikingly, it entirely changed the habits and customs of people. In truth, things didn’t go really that way, but this is not the moment to discuss such an extensive subject quite yet: we will, however, look at how Christian beliefs changed the perception of the dead and their cult in Rome. Then, we’ll take a look at how the Christians’ relation with the dead evolved in the Middle Ages: since then, one can easily say, the manner we deal, love and care for our dead in Italy has changed very little.

The first Christian Graveyards in Italy: The Catacombs

The Roman catacombs were created between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century AD, under the pontificate of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217). He asked the deacon Calistus (who was to become Pope after him) to overview the construction and the successive use of the cemetery on the Via Appia, where several important Popes of the 3rd century would be buried. As we saw, inumation was commonly used by the Etruscans, the Jewish people and the Romans, but it’s truly with Christianity that it became the principal form of burial in Italy: this is because Christians began to create larger burial areas capable to host not only a family, but rather the entire Christian community and used inumation to do so.

Catacombs are largely excavated in tufa. For this reason, they are particularly common in central Italy and in the South and the islands, where this specific geological conformation is usual. As their main chambers are well under the ground, catacombs are characterized by the presence of long stairs and corridors, in a fashion similar to that of coal mines. These corridors are called gallerie, galleries, and their walls are covered with orizontally-set niches, each the length of a person: these are the loculi, where ordinary Christians were buried. Once the body was placed inside, the loculus was closed either with bricks and mortar or marble slabs, very much as we still do in Italy today. Don’t forget that catacombs are not only in Rome: those in Palermo are renowned, although created much later in time, between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome: the loculi are visible.
The Catacombs of San Callisto in Rome: the loculi are visible. (Photo GerardM on wikimedia.org)

The Middle Ages: Just as Today

During the last centuries of the Roman Empire, in a period commonly known today as Late Antiquity (think about the centuries from the 3rd to the 6th), the influence of Christianity in Italy (and in the whole of Europe) grew to the point of changing little by little the way people behaved, also when it came to burial practices. It was during these centuries that the habit of burying the dead outside the city walls began to be abandoned: this was due to the development of a crucial cult for the history of Christianity, that of Saints and their relics. People believed that being physically close to the place of burial of a holy person could make their prayers more powerful. As a consequence, the tombs of many early saints became extremely popular destinations of pilgrimage. To facilitate visits, chapels and churches were built around the tombs and, later, burial would more simply take place in an area (usually within the city walls) more easily accessible and to control. Holy people, as well as important local personalities began being buried in churches, usually in the walls, or in the ground, with marble gravestones indicating their name. This remained usual practice for centuries in Italy. Even today, to a certain extent, it’s still maintained: when Pope John Paul II became a Saint, his body was moved from the Vatican Crypt to the Basilica.

In the Middle Ages, as it is in Italy still today, dealing with death was the duty of the Church: the priest would be called to the house of the dying and administer the last rites. Windows and doors would be opened to allow the soul of the departed to freely move to Heaven. In those times, it was women who took care of cleaning and dressing the body, whereas today it is usually the task of professionals. However, it’s not uncommon in Italy for members of the family and friends to help: one last moment of intimacy with the departed. The presence of a funeral procession was common, as it is still today, and as it was in Roman times. In the Middle Ages, common parishioners would be interred on Church ground, as it was consacrated; this is still, in a way, true of today’s practice, as Cemeteries are always on consacrated soil.

When it comes to burial practices and the cult of the dead, very little has changed in Italy since the Middle Ages. This is because both practices are well in the hands of a profoundly traditional institution, the Catholic Church, and also because people find comfort in relating to what is known and consoling in a moment of pain. A clear difference, however, is that today cremation is accepted by the Church, whereas it wasn’t up to about 15 or 20 years ago: it’s common today to see smaller loculi in our cemeteries, made specially to contain urns, rather than caskets. One peculiarity of our cemeteries, especially if compared to anglosaxon and north americans, is the large presence of loculi, burial niches, a method very common everywhere in the country and not only in the cemeteries of larger cities.

By Francesca Bezzone
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