The people of ancient Greece practiced ground burial for around 2,000 years before the influence of Asia Minor reached the area and cremation began to appear in about 1200 BC. A few centuries later, cremation had become a common part of the Grecian burial custom. This period is sometimes referred to as the “Urnfield Culture” because modern archaeologists have discovered hundreds of urns placed together that date back to about 1000 BC. By 800 BC, cremation was the dominant mode of disposition in Greece.
One reason the Greek people adopted cremation was to transport soldiers slain in enemy territory back to their homeland, ensuring a proper funeral. Bodies were cremated on the battlefield and the ashes gathered and sent home for a ceremonial entombment.
The ancient Greek poet Homer wrote about cremation in his famous epic, The Iliad, which references cremation and funeral rites at least six times. One example from the poem is when Greek god Zeus demanded Achilles return Hector’s body so that it could be royally cremated.
Two centuries later, the Roman Empire began to embrace cremation, usually associating the practice with military honours. Roman philosopher Cicero considered burial an archaic rite. He thought upper class citizens and members of imperial families should be cremated.
There was an elaborate process surrounding cremation in ancient Rome. After death, the body was washed and dressed in fine clothes to be displayed in the home. Coins were placed on the face of the deceased in order for them to pay their way across the river Styx when they reached the afterworld. Otherwise, their soul would be forced to wander the shores of the river for one hundred years. A funeral procession followed, culminating with a funeral pyre onto which perfume and sometimes the blood of animals were thrown. Once the cremation was complete, the fire was quenched with wine and the remains were placed in an urn.
Urns in the Roman Empire were generally made of clay or bronze and would often be placed in columbariums to prevent theft and vandalism of the remains. Roman columbariums were partially or fully underground buildings that housed human remains. Today, columbarium usually refers to a free-standing, above-ground outdoor structure.