Peter Jones

Roman funerals had real ‘emotional intelligence’

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Today’s funerals, featuring shiny black hearses and top hats, lack (we are assured) ‘emotional intelligence’. Colourful coffins featuring pictures of favourite musicians, leopard print hearses and burials in yurts will apparently correct this sad deficiency. The Romans might well have disagreed.

Cremation and interment took place outside the boundaries of Rome (dead bodies were considered a polluting force — contrast the Christian view). The less well-off could for a fee join funerary clubs, meeting regularly to dine together, and have a niche in a highly decorated underground chamber reserved for the urn containing their ashes. Those wealthy enough to afford funerary monuments, featuring lengthy epitaphs and portraits of the deceased, built them alongside the roads into the city, many with seats and dining areas for the tired traveller to rest and admire the success, as well as thoughtfulness, of the family that provided them.

The elites went one better. There was a tradition of preserving death masks (imagines) of the dear departed, complete with lists of achievements, to be displayed in the main reception area of the family home. When the latest family member died, the body would be accompanied out not only by huge crowds, but also by actors wearing the family imagines. These would impersonate the dead man and his famous ancestors, all of whose great exploits would be celebrated by the public eulogist in the forum. The effect on the crowds must have been extraordinary. As the historian Polybius observed: ‘By this regularly renewed celebration of brave men, the fame of those who have done great things is immortalised, and the renown of those who have served their country well becomes common knowledge and passed down to posterity.’

And that was the point: all those ceremonies and monuments suggest a powerful desire on the part of Romans to project themselves publicly as families whose present loss was to be understood in the context of their past, and implied future, dedication to serving the Roman state and its gods. Now that is emotional intelligence — in marked contrast to leopard print hearses and pictures of (say) the lead singer of Moaning Sausage on the coffin, let alone ‘curated boards stacked with mini pavlovas’.