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When did the Greeks start the practice of burying their dead relatives' bodies?

When did the Greeks start the practice of burying their dead relatives' bodies?

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I was told that at the time around 1 B.C. to 2 A.D Greeks were still cremating bodies of their dead relatives. When did the Greeks start burying them?

This is a common misconception, cremation was not universal in ancient Greece. The Greeks had various funerary customs, that depended not only on local practices and customs but also on the social status of the deceased. Cremation was fairly common, however that doesn't mean that burial wasn't. In fact the more common practice in post Mycenaean times was cremation and burial, the remains would be cremated prior to burial. Inhumation was also practiced with varying degrees of popularity, depending on the era and place.

Cremation was known to the Greeks since at least the Homeric era. The Iliad has several mentions to the practice, every burial mentioned involves cremation with the more notable being the elaborate funeral games for Patroclus. A number of urns and jars containing burned bones and ashes have been discovered by Schliemann and others in Hisarlik, and seems to corroborate Homer's descriptions of the era's burial customs. However limited evidence of inhumation were also found by later excavations that show cremation, although popular, was not exclusive.

The popularity of the Homeric epics lead to the association of cremation with the era of heroes, however the Mycenaeans didn't seem to favour the practice. Most remains found in tombs of the era were not cremated, and the limited traces of charcoal that have been found in Mycenaean tombs have been attributed to funeral rites or fumigation, rather than cremation. The only conclusive evidence of cremation during the era was a jar containing burned remains that was found in a tomb close to the Heraion at Olympia.

Evidence of cremation are far more common in post-Mycenaean times, however it wasn't until the Archaic period that the practice became popular. It was practiced alongside inhumation, its popularity varied wildly from place to place and was almost always followed by burial of the remains, in group or single graves. The Phoinike necropolis gives us a unique opportunity to observe burial customs from the middle Classical period to the late Hellenistic era, and provides us with evidence for both practices, throughout Ancient Greek History.

During the late Classical period cremation's popularity generally declined in comparison to the Archaic period. One theory for its declination is that it was considerably costlier. There is certainly a general tendency towards simpler burial customs during the Classical period, pottery grave goods became far more common than metallic ones, however the cost of cremation and the cost of inhumation at the time is unknown.

During the Hellenistic period, cremation's popularity appears to have declined since the Archaic and early Classical period. As an example, of the 70 graves in the Hellenistic cemeteries in Thesprotia (Gitana, Elea, Doliani, Dimokastro) 42 were inhumations, 22 were cremation burials, 4 contained both cremated and inhumated remains and we aren't certain about the remaining 2. Similar patterns appear in other Hellenistic cemeteries, with some containing no cremated remains at all. On the other hand, most of the remains in the royal tombs in Vergina were cremated, and that is perhaps a hint that cremation was reserved for royalty and higher aristocracy during the early Hellenistic period.

In Roman Greece, the popularity of cremation further declined. It was ultimately replaced with inhumation during the 2nd century A.D., both in Rome and in Greece, mostly because of the advent of Christianity and by the 5th century A.D. cremation was abandoned throughout Europe.


  • Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices
  • Roman funerals and burial
  • Homeric and Mycenean burial customs, G. Mylonas
  • Hellenistic Cremation Burial Practices. An Anthropological Study of Thesprotian Graves, Asterios Aidonis
  • A Hellenistic tomb with a small equid burial in the Phoinike necropolis, con A. Curci e G. Lepore
  • Ten Hellenistic graves in ancient Corinth, E. Pemberton
  • Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece
  • The chronology of the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina, O. Palagia

Ancient Greeks: Everyday Life, Beliefs and Myths

When someone died in Ancient Greece, they would be washed. A coin would be placed in their mouth, to pay the ferrymen who took the dead across the rivers in the different parts of the Underworld. When the Greeks conquered Egypt, they adopted the Egyptian tradition of mummification. They used simple boxes for burying their dead or the deceased would be burned, and their ashes buried in a special pot.

Tombs and Gravestones

Entrances to tombs, where the dead were laid to rest, were made of marble. Heads of Gorgons were carved on to the tomb doors to ward off evil. The tombs were made to stop the dead being forgotten and sometimes they were carved with pictures, showing the deceased with people they knew in life.

Inside the tomb the family of the deceased person placed valuable objects with their body, like pottery, jewellery and coins. It was believed that they would be able to use these objects in the Underworld. Every year families visited the tombs of their dead relatives, making offerings and decorating the tomb.

What were the Rituals Associated with Death and Burial in Jesus’Day?

The Jewish people took the burial of the dead quite seriously it was the way a community paid its last respects to the one who died. The Scriptures laid down quite firmly that no dead body was to be left unburied—even that of one’s worst enemy. Perhaps one of the stronger horrors that a Jewish person could imagine was stated in Psalm 78: They have thrown the bodies of thy servants as food for the birds of heaven wild beast feast on the corpses of the just.

The dead, therefore, had a right to ceremonial care. As soon as a person was dead, his eyes were to be closed, he was to be kissed with love, and his body was to be washed (Genesis 50:1 Acts 9:37). In this washing, the body was anointed with perfumes. Nard was the most usual of these, but myrrh and aloes were also used.

By the time of Christ, the custom was that the body was elaborately wrapped in a shroud and the face was covered with a special cloth called a sudarium. The hands and feet were tied with strips of cloth.

Once this was done, relatives and friends could come to the home to say goodbye to the deceased for the last time. All of this happened in very short order burial usually followed within eight hours of death. In such a hot climate, burial could not be delayed.

After this brief time during which the living could say their farewells to the deceased, the body was carried in a kind of litter to the grave. There were no professional carriers the person’s relatives and friends took turns carrying the body as a sign of affection. Women led the procession and it was usually quite a noisy spectacle—even in cases in which the sorrow was not that great (such as in the case of a person who had died after a long illness). All funeral processions were expected to have those who wailed loudly and threw dust in their hair as well as flautists who played doleful music on their instruments. Given these expectations, families often hired professional mourners who assisted in the process.

The Jews never cremated their dead indeed they had a revulsion for the practice since they believed in the resurrection of the body.

Cemeteries were always to be at least fifty yards outside of any town or village.

The typical tombs of Jesus’ day involved a kind of cave or excavation cut into a rocky cliff. Sometimes larger families or groups of families would use these burial areas together. An opening in the side of a cliff might lead into a crypt of several rooms used by different families. There would be an outer and an inner chamber, or at least a front and back portion to the cave. In the outer chamber the body would be laid out on a kind of bench or shelf cut into the rock. After the final respects were paid, a large round stone was usually rolled into place (via a groove) to cover the tomb.

These large stones would often be whitewashed as a kind of warning to passersby that the area was in fact a gravesite. This was because Jews incurred ritual uncleanliness by coming in close contact with a dead body. Surely this could be endured as an act of charity for a dead relative, but one would not wish to incur it for a stranger. Thus the whitewashed tomb entrances served as a kind of warning to steer clear.

Very poor people, who could not afford a rock-hewn tomb, or foreigners who had no land were buried within vertical shafts in designated fields. In the Gospels there is reference to the purchase of the potter’s field as a place to bury the poor and foreigners who died in Israel (Mat 27:7).

A brief repast would follow and included the ritual drinking of wine and eating of the bread of mourning. For the very closest relatives (such as a wife, son, or daughter) mourning lasted for 30 days. This was observed by the wearing of special clothing, by refraining from wearing phylacteries during prayer, and by not answering greetings in the street.

After about a year, family members would return to the tomb and collect the bones, placing them in a box called an ossuary. They would mark the box with identifying information and place it in the back room of the tomb where the bones of other relatives were also stored. This is the basis of the Jewish expression that the deceased “rested with his ancestors.” It also explains the concerns of the patriarch Joseph: Then Joseph took an oath from the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Gen 50:25). And Scripture says that as Moses left Egypt he took the bones of Joseph with him for Joseph had solemnly sworn the people of Israel, saying, “God will visit you then you must carry my bones with you from here” (Exodus, 13:19). And Scripture says that after entering the land, The bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph (Jos 24:32).

Thus Joseph rested with his ancestors. And so will we, until our bodies shall rise at the Last Trumpet.

2 Hades

After death, ancient Greeks believed that their spirits, or psyches, traveled to the underworld ruled by the brother of Zeus, Hades. Hades is also sometimes used to refer to the underworld itself. Upon entering the underworld, the spirits had to cross the river Styx on Charon's ferry to enter their final resting place. Depending on their actions in life, there were three possible places their psyche could end up: Tartarus, Elysium or Asphodel. Tartarus was for those who had committed sins against the gods. Here they received eternal torment for their crimes. Asphodel, where most spirits ended up, was a vast plain covered in flowers were the dead lived aimlessly. Elysium was reserved for heroes and those whom the gods favored, for their spirits would live on in an eternal paradise.

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When did the Greeks start the practice of burying their dead relatives' bodies? - History

Caring for your own dead began to change dramatically during the Civil War.
Soldiers were dying on the battlefield, and their families would want them sent
home for burial. This is when the practice of embalming, for shipping bodies over
a long distance, first began to take place. Dr. Auguste Renouard (1839-1912), a
U.S. Physician, was one of the early leaders in the field, laying the groundwork
for present day embalming methods.

During this time period, the family graveyard was moving towards the more park
like settings of the local cemetery. Also, the United States, established a number of
national military cemeteries, where members of the armed forces were and
continue to be buried.

Soon after came the Undertakers, who undertook this duty for the families at a
time of need. It was not long before this became the normal way for families to
take care of their dead.

Over time, Undertakers become known as Morticians and Funeral Directors. In
the beginning of the 1900's, the newly formed National Funeral Directors
Association was pressing its members to consider themselves "professionals," not
tradesmen as the earlier coffin-makers had been. Regular use of embalming was
encouraged, and the new "professionals" used it to suggest they were keepers of
the public health.

5 Disposition of the Remains

Tradition that survived for centuries dictated how a corpse was prepared for burial. Close female relatives washed and anointed the body and wrapped it in a shroud. The body rested on a funeral bier in the house, surrounded by wreaths of laurel and myrtle to evoke love and immortality. This tableau symbolized the sleep of the dead, who continued to exist in Hades as they had in life. Exacting preparations of the body ensured the best possible life in the underworld. The wake, called the prothesis, featured ritual lamentations. After the wake, a procession, the ekphora, conveyed the deceased to the cemetery outside the city walls for burial. Greek law required the ekphora and the burial to conclude before sunrise so the city would not be disturbed by the funeral. Bodies could be cremated or buried intact cremains were collected in an amphora for interment in the grave. Birthdays and death days, observed at the grave site with celebratory meals and offerings of food and drink, acknowledged the underworld existence of the departed soul.

Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London's dead

A s well as sewerage, another “waste removal” problem plagued London in the 19th century: the disposal of the dead. There was little dispute about the means. Burial was the norm cremation a peculiar foreign custom. The difficulty lay in finding room for an ever-increasing number of corpses. The capital’s burgeoning population, upon their decease, were filling up its small churchyards, burial grounds and vaults.

The consequences, wherever demand exceeded supply, were decidedly unpleasant. Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst the tombstones smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood. Clergymen and sextons turned a blind eye to the worst practices because burial fees formed a large proportion of their income. Macabre scenes awaited those who pried too closely into the gravedigger’s work:

I saw them chopping the head of his coffin away I should not have known it if I had not seen the head with the teeth I knew him by his teeth one tooth was knocked out and the other was splintered I knew it was my father’s head, and I told them to stop, and they laughed …

Clearance of long-buried bones had always taken place but the growing demand for burials in crowded grounds meant the work became ever more grisly.

Moreover, by the 1840s London’s overcrowded churchyards (and the older, small commercial grounds in the centre of the capital) were not only seen as posing a logistical challenge, but damned as a source of “miasma”. Sanitary reformers quite mistakenly believed that the stench from poorly interred decaying bodies was poisoning the metropolis. The practice of urban burial was touted as a profound menace to public health.

One answer to London’s overcrowded churchyards was the new ‘garden cemeteries’ such as Kensal Green, opened in 1832. Photograph: Martin Godwin

For the middle- and upper-classes, one answer was to remove their dead to commercial “garden cemeteries”, spacious parks built in the semi-rural suburbs, such as Kensal Green (opened in 1832) and Highgate (1839). Such places, however, were well beyond the means of the urban poor.

George Alfred Walker – who would acquire the nickname “Graveyard Walker” – a surgeon who took up practice in the slums of Drury Lane in the mid-1830s – determined to address the “miasma” question.

Walker believed that foul-smelling burial grounds produced much ill health in the neighbouring population. He did not deny the influence of sewers, poorly ventilated housing, and the like – but he was certain that graveyard miasma was an important, much neglected predisposing cause of disease. In 1839 he began a long campaign to end “intramural interment”, commencing with a pamphlet entitled Gatherings from Graveyards.

George ‘Graveyard’ Walker. Illustration: Wellcome

The key to the problem was gas emanating from rotting corpses. The existence of such gases was undisputed – sextons and undertakers were often called up to “tap” coffins in church vaults, drilling a hole to prevent them breaking open with explosive force. Walker dutifully recorded the effects of leaking miasma on the constitution of gravediggers, ranging from general ill health (“pain in the head, heaviness, extreme debility, lachrymation, violent palpitation of the heart, universal trembling, with vomiting”) to sudden death. Gas could, indeed, prove fatal: graveyard workers who broke into bloated coffins were occasionally suffocated by the release of “cadaverous vapours”.

The overall argument in Gatherings was that concentrated graveyard gases caused instant death in man and beast foul-smelling grounds, constantly releasing more diffused miasma, did not produce sudden death – but they debilitated those living nearby, according to their level of exposure and individual resistance.

Walker was a skilful propagandist, adept at utilising grisly detail to grab the attention of the reader. His favourite example of malpractice was Enon Chapel, situated in slums north of the Strand.

This dubious place of worship, established in the 1820s largely as a burial speculation, contained a modest cellar in which the deceased were laid to rest in their thousands (ie. corpses were regularly surreptitiously cleared away). Mangled coffins in the chapel vaults produced unclassifiable “body bugs”, which sprang from the corpses and lurked in hair and clothing. Worshippers reported foul aromas and “a peculiar taste” during services, praising the Lord with a handkerchief pressed to their nostrils. Some redundant remains were dumped in a sewer that ran directly under the building.

Walker recounted such cases before Robert Slaney’s Health of Towns committee in 1840. He then met the Bishop of London (“no satisfactory conclusions could be arrived at”). He petitioned the home secretary, denouncing graveyards as “laboratories of malaria … so many centres of infection, constantly giving off noxious effluvia”. It was, he claimed, only the differences in locality, atmosphere and individual constitution that rendered such gases a “slow or energetic poison”.

Enon Chapel, in the slums north of the Strand, was an infamous example of malpractice

The MP William Mackinnon, who had listened to Walker’s evidence at the Slaney inquiry, presented the petition and successfully moved for a select committee on the subject. Thanks to Walker’s agitation, the burial problem would receive detailed parliamentary scrutiny.

The Mackinnon inquiry of 1842 covered similar ground to Walker’s reports. Among other things, the select committee confirmed the reality of Walker’s accounts of gross and gruesome scenes in churchyards and vaults:

I have seen them play at what is called skittles put up bones and take skulls and knocked them down stick up bones in the ground and throw a skull at them as you would a skittle-ball.

The medical evidence, however, was not emphatic. James Copeland, censor of the Royal College of Physicians, stated that burial grounds were probably the most important factor in generating ill health among the poor, but focused on the effect of liquefying, decomposing bodies on local wells and water supply. George Collier, another doctor, affirmed that graveyard miasma would “depress, impair and enervate the human frame”, and was a predisposing cause of fever of the “low typhoid kind”. The committee chairman agreed – that there was a link between miasma and fever – but would only go so far as to say: “I should presume that over-crowded burying-grounds would supply such effluvia most abundantly.”

The connection, in other words, seemed likely but not definite. Others noted alternative explanations for the prevalence of fever in the slums – the stench from sewers and the general dirt. A doctor at King’s College Hospital, located next to a notoriously ill-managed burial ground, said that his patients suffered “no inconvenience”.

Despite these equivocal findings, the select committee ultimately endorsed Walker’s miasmatic claims. Distrust of stench won the day – for there was no doubting the awful aroma that arose from certain grounds. As one gravedigger eloquently declaimed: “I [have] emptied a cesspool, and the smell of it was rose-water compared with the smell of these graves.”

Mackinnon recommended immediate action: the prohibition of urban burial, with legislation requiring parishes (or unions of parishes, as under the Poor Law) to build their own large cemeteries at a safe distance from the centre of the metropolis. If necessary, he would bring forward his own bill in parliament, recommending a penny rate to pay for new cemeteries, and a central board of health to oversee parish arrangements.

Mackinnon would doggedly raise the need for legislation over the next few parliamentary sessions, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Walker, meanwhile, although he had hoped for more from the government, refused to be downcast. He was a remarkably determined individual and continued his campaign in letters, pamphlets, petitions and lectures. His technique was repetition, constantly assailing the public with ever more gruesome facts, recycling tales of graveyard degradations, seeking out new examples. He formed a Society for the Abolition of Burial in Towns, modelled on the Health of Towns Association, which attracted a small but dedicated membership.

Public health campaigner Edwin Chadwick leads a meeting of the General Board of Health in Whitehall. Illustration: World History Archive/Alamy

By the late 1840s, it was generally accepted that urban graveyards were a danger to human health. There was a growing orthodoxy about miasma and Walker himself had done much to convince the public. Punch magazine would personify graveyard miasma, in doggerel, as ‘The Vampyre (NO SUPERSTITION)’, (‘To work vengeance and woe is his mission of dread. Upon those mid the living who bury their dead’).

It was the resurgence of cholera in the capital that finally persuaded ministers that action was needed. The interment question passed into the hands of another long-time public health campaigner, Edwin Chadwick. Parochial authorities in Lambeth, fearing imminent government intervention, slashed their burial fees – the ‘1st class ground’ reduced from 27s to 16s, the “2nd class” from 16s to 6s – a rather grim clearance sale.

Sir Edwin Chadwick. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

The resultant 1850 Metropolitan Interments Act was Chadwick’s attempt to bring in his earlier plan for “national cemeteries”. It remained a remarkably radical scheme, but the public’s enthusiasm for the sanitary cause, and the threat of cholera, persuaded the Whig government of the day to hastily accept what the previous administration had so emphatically rejected.

The stated intent of the legislation was to close church vaults, churchyards and burial grounds within the metropolis. One or more large public cemeteries would be established in their place, situated beyond the built-up city and managed by a central commission. The ground would be divided into consecrated and non-consecrated, with one chapel for the established Church, another for Dissenters – just like at Kensal Green.

The price of funerals would be regulated on a sliding scale, suitable for the different social classes and the clergy compensated for the loss of burial fees, based on their income over the previous three years. Likewise, owners of closed burial grounds and cemeteries would be awarded appropriate compensation. This included Kensal Green and other new ‘garden cemeteries’ – none of them anywhere near full – which Chadwick might easily have proposed to nationalise. Instead, he preferred to buy them out, close them and start from scratch.

Chadwick’s most novel proposal – attempting to address the complaint that the poor would struggle to afford travel to distant cemeteries – was to suggest that the “chief metropolitan cemetery should be in some eligible situation accessible by water-carriage”. The suggestion that new cemeteries might be located alongside railway lines – conveying coffins and mourners by rail – had long been mooted as a solution to the expense of travel, although some considered the idea lacked dignity.

Chadwick, whilst not ruling out contracting with railway companies, believed that steam-boat funeral barges would resolve the issue in a stately fashion. He was perhaps inspired by Kensal Green’s never-realised plans for a water-gate by the Regent’s Canal. Walker rejoiced – this was the scheme he had long supported as the solution to the burial problem. But it would prove completely unworkable.

Augustus Pugin’s satirical sketch mocks the clashing architectural styles of London’s mid-19th century commercial cemeteries

The great problem with Chadwick’s plan for nationalisation was the level of compensation that would have been required to buy out existing commercial interests. Ultimately, the Treasury refused to back the scheme and new, simpler legislation was drafted in 1852. Parishes were empowered to take out 20-year government loans to build garden cemeteries around the outskirts of London – or rent space in existing suburban grounds. Meanwhile, foul burial places in the centre of the metropolis – whether parish or private – could be closed by order of the secretary of state.

The government was keen to show that the new legislation was practical and effective. Within the first year of the Metropolitan Interments Act’s operation, the home secretary, Lord Palmerston, had issued closure notices to nearly 200 sites. This produced harsh words from the Bishop of London, who noted that 36 out of 43 available grounds had been closed in the East End, creating intense pressure on the remaining sites, while parochial cemeteries were still under construction:

… the corpses of children were frequently carried to the places of sepulture in cabs, and that it was no uncommon sight to see a string of such vehicles, filled with dead bodies, waiting at the gate of an unconsecrated burial-ground, until they could be admitted. He need not say that on such occasions the solemn services of the Church were performed in a slovenly, irregular and indecent manner …

London’s Cemetery Station handled funeral traffic for the giant Necropolis cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Photograph: National Railway Museum / SSPL

The owners of private grounds closed by the government were not inclined to go quietly they were, after all, losing the entirety of their business. A certain Mr Jones, proprietor of the New Bunhill Fields in Upper Street, Islington, proclaimed (quite falsely) that Palmerston’s notice had instructed him not only to close but to clear the ground. He began to disinter bodies, perhaps hoping to build on the site. The children in a nearby school were treated to the sight of broken coffins, bones and “slimy matter, alive with maggots”.

In 1856, Jones was found to be taking down tombstones and monuments, “selling them for what they would fetch”. The instructions from the Home Office were that the site should be covered with two feet of earth, sown with grass and intercut with asphalt paths, to create pleasant walks for the public. Instead, by 1858, the walls had been demolished, brickwork removed, and the ground given over to a local scavenger, to use as a rubbish dump. The local sanitary inspector noted, “It was about 60 yards square, and there were from 6,000 to 10,000 loads of rubbish on it.”

Abandoned burial grounds, like any empty plot in the metropolis, were liable to become dumps – whether for household rubbish or, in the worst districts, “ankle deep … with excrement, thrown out from the houses” – and other sites would meet the same fate.

Fortunately, while the owners of speculations lived down to their rather grubby reputation, London’s vestries defied Walker’s low expectations. St Pancras, a large and prosperous parish, bought Horse Shoe Farm in Finchley in 1853 – two miles from its northern boundary – and opened it as the first large-scale parish cemetery in June 1854. The cemetery itself was very much in the garden style, “visited by large numbers of persons, as it is laid out like a splendid park, and its walks afford the advantages of a perfect promenade”.

Fees in new parish cemeteries varied from district to district, but a common grave at the City of London Cemetery at Little Ilford cost only 8s 6d when the cemetery opened (albeit with “1st class” graves going for 17s 6d). This was no trifling expense – and there were travel costs – but the price was comparable with what might have been paid at small commercial grounds in the East End. Those vestries unwilling to or incapable of making their own separate arrangements to build a new cemetery could either amalgamate into unions, buy space in the joint-stock-company cemeteries or cut deals with their neighbours. St Mary Islington, for example, home to Jones’s rubbish dump, bought some of the St Pancras cemetery for its own use.

Within the space of a few years, large parochial cemeteries, nestling on the edge of the city, were an accepted part of the London landscape. They were spacious, well ventilated, and proper regulations ensured that graves were deep and well maintained: any threat from miasma was neutralised.

George Alfred Walker surveyed the scene, then quietly withdrew from the public eye. He would eventually retire to North Wales, where he died in 1884. An anonymous 1890s’ memoirist, recalling Walker and his “doctor’s shop” on the corner of Drury Lane and Blackmore Street, would describe him as “a great favourite in the neighbourhood … on account of his kindness to the poor”.

Striking Victorian statuary is crumbling away, replaced by plain tombstones and grass lawns. Photograph: Graham Turner

By the 1860s, garden cemeteries surrounded the metropolis on all sides, both commercial and parochial. Many of the old, disused private burial grounds would also eventually become garden cemeteries, of a sort. During the 1880s and 1890s, local authorities, the LCC and the Metropolitan Public Gardens, Boulevard and Playground Association began to clean up and reopen old burial sites. Their tombstones cleared to one side, they were remade as public parks, small breathing-spaces for Londoners.

In some cases, decay would follow. Famous garden cemeteries, like Highgate, built as a sanitary commercial alternative to foul local burial grounds in the 1830s, filled up, failed to pay dividends to shareholders, and fell into disrepair during the 20th century, suffering from theft, vandalism and general indifference. Some of their grand chapels were demolished others now stand forlorn and ruined amid the tombs, ghostly hollow shells. The managed decay of the likes of Highgate Cemetery bears little relation to the pristine plans of its progenitors. The forest that has swallowed Abney Park mocks the original design for an arboretum, where every plant was carefully labelled to elevate the public taste.

Indeed, the notion of the cemetery as “a great theatre for public taste” – a phrase used by John Bowring MP in the Mackinnon inquiry – has fallen completely out of fashion. Victorian statuary crumbles away. Plain tombstones and grass lawns are now the unchallenged norm minimalism is the key. The greatest change in the post-Victoria era, of course, has been not aesthetic, but the gradual acceptance of cremation (first proposed by a few radical thinkers in the late 19th century).

Yet, despite the ravages of time, changing customs, vicissitudes of fashion, the Victorian garden cemetery still survives in its various forms, one of the great legacies of the 19th century.

This abridged extract is taken from Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, by Lee Jackson – published by Yale University Press 2014 (RRP £20), and available from the Guardian Bookshop for £16. The book considers the challenges posed by waste and pollution in 19th-century London and, in particular, why the Victorians left their capital notoriously filthy.


After spending most of their lives in the United States and raising their family here, my grandparents moved back to Greece in the 1990s for their retirement. They settled in Athens, where their children (including my father) would visit them. When they passed away, we had funeral services in the local church, honoring their memory with prayers and bundles of flowers. None of us anticipated that—in 2011, in a First World country—a combination of government and state-church policies would lead to the desecration of their graves.

The Greek Orthodox Church believes that the body, as the “temple of the spirit,” must be buried whole to make resurrection possible. Yet with land a valuable resource in Greece, the state requires the recycling of cemetery space. Some permanent plots are still available—but they can cost up to 150,000 euros (more than $200,000). If you can’t afford this extravagance, you must rent a grave, and only for a maximum of three years. By law, once that time is up, a relative must appear at the gravesite to witness a cemetery worker (no priest is present) dig up the grave, exhume the body (often not fully decomposed), pry it from the coffin, and then collapse the bones into a container roughly the size of a shoebox for storage in a communal ossuary.

One way around the problem of space might be cremation. Until recently, the technique was illegal—in deference to the Church, which considers it a pagan custom and a bar to the afterlife. The government finally lifted the ban in 2006. But the catch is that the state has yet to construct any crematoria within the country’s borders. And so when a Greek person dies, his family must resort to transporting the body, with significant red tape and at great expense, to a foreign country that does have facilities (often Germany or Bulgaria).

The reality of what plays out can be even more disheartening than having your grandparents take an unceremonious trip from grave to shoebox. Our closest living relative in Athens, my father’s sister, chose not to attend the exhumation—most likely to avoid the horrible spectacle of seeing her parents’ partially decomposed bodies dug up. As a result, my grandparents’ remains were placed in a mass grave and dissolved with chemicals. Incredibly, this is not that uncommon. If no one shows up on the appointed date, or if you stop payment on the fee for the ossuary, the cemetery destroys the bones.

My family in the United States was deeply distressed at the news, for many reasons: How could we not have been consulted? How is this legal? That very phrase, mass grave, immediately evoked images of ethnic cleansing, of the Holocaust, of bodies unceremoniously piled high, depersonalized—visual shorthand for a complete disrespect for life. My reaction was also one of shame: Only barbaric people would treat their dead this way.

The truth, however, is that what’s happening in Greece is not unprecedented. For much of European history, Christian graves have been impermanent. In the Middle Ages, the poor were buried in common graves in the churchyard, and their bones, over time, were removed to the charnel house to make room for the more recently dead. Even the wealthy, who were buried inside the church itself, were later moved into the charnel house. Plagues were also a major cause of churchyard overcrowding, leading to a few creative solutions on the part of the Catholic Church. There are several examples of chapels built from human skeletons, including the ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic, and Rome’s famous Capuchin Crypt. With morbid ingenuity, they used bones as building materials in baroque-style ceiling trims, crests, and even massive chandeliers.

By the 1800s, for fear of a public health crisis, major cities such as Paris London and Glasgow, Scotland shifted from churchyard burials to the use of carefully plotted-out cemeteries, often far outside the city limits. Many cemeteries, particularly in France and Italy, leased plots for 10 to 50 years, at which point the family could choose to renew the plot—for a fee. Otherwise, the remains were removed to the charnel house and the gravesite reused.

This remove/reuse practice continues today in parts of Europe where, after two world wars, overcrowding is an even more pressing issue. Italy and France allow for exhumation and removal to an ossuary when necessary—although these countries typically leave more time for decomposition than Greece, and don’t share Greece’s bear-witness-or-we-pull-the-trigger approach. In Sweden, after 25 years, the law requires that cemetery workers dig up the coffin, dig the grave even deeper, and then bury another casket in the earth above it. The United Kingdom, resistant to any disturbance to graves since the Burial Act of 1857, is now trying a similar method—but only with remains that are more than 100 years old.

In the East, there are more graphic (to my mind) methods of handling the bodies of the dead. Not far from modern-day Greece, in what is now Turkey, the ancient Çatalhöyük culture left their dead out in the open, to be picked clean by vultures until the bones were ready for collection and burial. (Some skulls were found set aside, plastered, and painted to resemble the deceased person’s human face.) “Sky burial” occurs even now: The Parsis of Bombay place their dead atop the three-centuries-old Towers of Silence (cylindrical structures with tall internal platforms) for “cleansing” by birds. Tibetans in the Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions also practice sky burial—and sometimes use the skulls to create elaborate kapalas, bowls carved and decorated for ritual offerings.

Such intimate contact with the remains of the dead is unheard of in contemporary American culture. Back in the early 19 th century, families would wash and prepare their dead for burial, and even build their own caskets. But shortly after embalming was introduced during the Civil War—to make the shipping of soldiers’ bodies across long distances possible—chemical preparation, makeup, and formal “display” in a funeral home became customary. Death became an industry. As a pagan friend of mine put it in an e-mail, “Clearly, if you are going to clean the skull of a fellow monk to make an offering bowl to the gods, you have a very different perspective than those who talk about eternal life, pump bodies full of chemicals, and seal people vacuum-pack-style into coffins.”

Today we treat our dead predominantly in one of three ways: burial, entombment aboveground, or cremation—with nearly half the country (46 percent) projected to choose cremation by 2015. Even though cemetery overcrowding has finally reached our geographically sprawling country, the United States, like the United Kingdom, subscribes to a “final resting place” view of burial: according to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Dougherty v. Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company), you cannot disturb a body without good reason .

Some Americans are trying to regain a certain level of intimacy with death. The green burial movement couples environmental concerns with land preservation—it rejects embalming and recommends burial in a shroud or biodegradable coffin. Funeral pyres have cropped up in Texas and Colorado, offering a primitive, organic method of cremation. Alternatives abound. Since 1965’s Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, Americans have had the right to donate their bodies to science (about 8,000 are needed annually for medical training). Sweden’s Promessa company may even bring us a far more radical alternative to burial: “promession,” the ability to freeze-dry and compost human remains and use them to plant a memorial tree in that person’s memory. Based on a method originally developed in Eugene, Ore., the procedure will likely be ready this year and already has a licensee in the United Kingdom.

In taking a look across cultures, it seems to me that the real problem with the Greek system is not the policy of exhumation, but the lack of choice. The Greek status quo is a compromise between spiritual belief and practical (and political) circumstance that is both emotionally difficult and impractical: There is a serious need for more options in how the dead are handled. Fortunately, it’s now possible that, after years of waiting, at least one alternative is on the way: Just recently, the municipality of Zografou, in Athens, approved the construction of Greece’s first crematorium, and the Committee for the Right of Cremation in Greece anticipates that the local government will announce an international competition for building plans in the coming months.

That’s too late for my family. Now we have nothing—no bones, or dust—to give a physical location to the memory of my grandparents. Instead, we are planning to buy a plot in Trinity Cemetery in New York, alongside the Catholic side of the family—my mother’s relatives who had migrated to the city in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. In place of their bones, we’re not sure what we’ll deposit. Personal relics, maybe—the objects that they lived with every day. My grandfather’s tools from his days as a tailor? My grandmother’s fur stole (she was a sort of Mediterranean Bette Davis)? What is a gravesite but a place to revisit memories of the people we loved? Those, at least, cannot be disinterred, crushed, or dissolved.

When did the Greeks start the practice of burying their dead relatives' bodies? - History

1) Some type of ceremony, funeral rite, or ritual
2) A sacred place for the dead
3) Memorials for the dead

Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC
with animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating
some type of ritual and gifts to the deceased. One of the first examples of this was
unearthed in the Shanidar cave in Iraq Neanderthal skeletons were discovered with
a layer of pollen.

With no great intellect or customs,the Neanderthal man instinctively buried their
dead with ritual and ceremony. This may suggest that Neanderthals believed in an
afterlife, but were at least capable of mourning, and were likely aware of their own

The most ancient and universal, of funeral monuments, were simple and natural,
consisting of a mound of earth, or a heap of stones, raised over the ashes or body
of the deceased.

60,000 BC - Neanderthals use flowers and antlers to decorate the dead

24,000 BC- One of the oldest known burial discoveries of the "Red Lady"by William Buckley
(see: 1822)

5000 BC- Oldest known Dolmen was built around this time

4000 BC- Embalming was originated by the Egyptians
- Tumuli, or burial mounds, are often seen solitary, many ancient sites had 100's and even 1000's
of them clustered in one area.

3500 BC- Period when most of the Dolmen were built

3400 BC- Mummification becomes normal in Egypt. Body preservation, a form of embalming.

3300 BC- Egyptian mummies’ levels of mummification differed according to rank and cost. More
expensive techniques resulted in a better looking corpse .

2200 BC- Stonehenge completed

1523-1028 BC- The beginning of the practice of Ancestor Worship in China during the Shang

1323- King Tutankahem is entombed in his now infamous sargophus.

1000 BC- Urn Funerary or cinerary urns have been used since ancient times as vessels to contain
cremains. First made of clay, they can now be found in many different materials.

800 BC- The Ancient Greeks prefered form of disposition becomes cremation on funeral pyres.

410 BC- The use of Catacombs for burial ended

353 BC- The first true Mausoleum was built, for the Carian ruler Mausolus. Begun
before his death in 353 B.C., construction of the Mausoleum was continued by his wife It ranked as
one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

230 BC- Hokenoyama tomb oldest know burial chamber in Japan.

210 BC- Emperor Qin Shi Huang is buried with his terrocota warriors.

7- Native Americans are known to buried their dead with grave goods such as tools and

100- Columbariums The Romans in the first and second centuries, used “columbarium”
(which means “dovecote”) as a name for a structure containing multiple funerary urns
because the stacked urns resembled stacked cages.

300- Japanese developed their unique keyhole shaped burial mounds, which were used
most frequently for important leaders

400- Suttees though banned on multiple occasions (as recently as 1987), suttee (meaning
“good woman” or “chaste wife” in Sanskrit) is the custom of Hindu widow burning herself,
or being burned, of her husband’s funeral pyre

600- The crypt at Old St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, developed about the year 600

900- Viking Tumulus Elaborate Viking funerals often involved ritual sacrifice of peasants,
plenty of strong drink before their “roles.” The graves, ship shaped tumuli, were outlined
with stone markers.

1500- Aztecs were known to be celebrating the Day of the Dead
- Inhabitants of Hawaii were known to bury the dead,
then light a fire over it that must be maintained for ten

1578- Rediscovery of the Roman Catacombs

1632- Building of the Taj Mahal

1800- Draping of a coffin with a National Flag during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815)
- Body Snatching becomes a concern, especially in the US & UK.

1822- William Buckley discovers the "Red Lady" in South Wales, a skeleton, dyed with
red ochre, surrounded by grave goods and shells. It was a man, shown that he lived 26,000
years ago, the oldest ceremonial burial discovered in Western Europe.

1829- Suttee was outlawed in British India

1830- Chinese are burying people in the sides of mountains.

1860's- U.S. Embalming began during the Civil War

1864- Arlington became a military cemetery

1884- Cremation became legal again in England

1882- First meeting on the National Funeral Directors Association

1887- Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science

1890- There are almost 10,000 funeral directors in
the U.S.

1909- Crane & Breed build the first motorized hearse

1919- " Bring back the Dead" league started in 1919.

1920- There are nearly 25,000 funeral homes in the U.S.

1930- Open air funeral pyres became illegal with the "Cremation Act of 1930" in the U.K.

1963- Nov 22 JFK buried at Arlington National
- Jessica Mitford Releases- "American Way of Death"
- The Catholic church began to accept cremation

1971- U.S. Memorial Day became a Federal holiday

1984- FTC's "Trade Regulations on the Funeral Industry Practices" went into full effect.

1993- The first cemetery featuring green burial is opened in the U.K.

1997- Cremated remains began to be launched into space for disperal amongst the stars.

2000- Ecopods made of biodegradable paper and other fibers, the sleek ecopods can be
customized just like caskets, but are designed to be used in “green” cemeteries.

2006- Launch of the 1st version of The Funeral Source online
- Custom caskets begin to enter the market.

Watch the video: This video has No Dislikes (June 2022).


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