Classically Inclined

February 18, 2013

Death, Rome and the Mitfords

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:31 am
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Last week was one of those weeks when my personal reading and my teaching prep coincided in unexpected and rewarding ways. I’ve just finished reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, and have also finished preparing a lecture on Roman attitudes to funerals and memorialisation. The American Way of Death is a sharp-tongued exposé of funeral practitioners in America in the 1960s; I read an original edition, but Mitford published a revised version shortly before her death. You wouldn’t expect many points of intersection between the two cultures, but I was quite surprised by how many similarities there actually were.

I want to elaborate on two examples. The first concerns the treatment of the body after death. Mitford is particularly scathing about the practice of embalming (supposedly carried out for reasons of ‘public health’, although she can find no doctor who agrees with this) and open casket funerals, which embalming enables; she points out that the open casket is a peculiarly American practice, and that the funeral director’s obsession with creating ‘A Beautiful Memory Picture’ of the deceased is based on sentiment rather than hard psychology. The open casket also, she feels, is sold as an opportunity for ostentation (in loving memory of the deceased, of course) rather than a genuine act of remembrance.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome. Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome.
Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

The Romans would have been right on the side of the funeral directors for this one. Particularly for wealthy families, displaying the body in the hall of the house (Italian weather, one suspects, permitting) was a standard practice, sometimes for up to seven days if the dead person had been particularly distinguished. The picture to the left depicts the laying in state of a woman’s body depicted on the tomb of the Haterii; she’s lying on a couch in her hall, surrounded by mourners and musicians. The display of the body allowed visitors to come and pay their respects – and see and be seen. Once the body had been displayed for an appropriate period, it would be carried to the forum on the couch, open to the elements and visible to all who passed the procession. When the procession reached the forum, someone, normally the eldest surviving son, would give an eulogy about his dead father, emphasising his achievements and accomplishments in public life – and, incidentally, not-so-subtly indicating that the speaker too was part of this successful political lineage. The Romans also took great care to dress the deceased in appropriate clothing (so a senator would be dressed in his senatorial toga) – just as the American undertakers Mitford explores have a range of dedicated clothing catalogues at their disposal to make sure that the deceased is properly fitted out in comfortable footwear. Of course, this is for the wealthy – the Roman poor would probably have been buried as soon after their deaths as possible, and I don’t think we have enough evidence to judge whether they would have buried in their best clothes. But the public display of the corpse for social purposes feels like something the Romans would have found fairly familiar.


June 27, 2011

Consolations and grief in the ancient world

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
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Given how much I’m blogging and tweeting about consolations in the ancient world, I thought I should give a quick run-down of what they actually are rather than expecting everyone to know. It’s actually quite a tricky question, because while people are happy to bandy about terms like ‘the genre of consolatio‘, our evidence for such a thing is remarkably poor. Now, speaking less technically, consolation has been around in the ancient world since as early as Homer – people comfort other people on misfortunes they have suffered, which is the basic definition of consolation. What’s interesting about the consolatio as a genre is that eventually it became a special sort of writing with its own rules and standard tropes. Crantor, a third century B.C. member of the Academy (the school which tried to follow Plato’s way of doing philosophy) is normally credited with being the first person to write a consolatio as we’d understand it – that is, a piece of writing addressed to someone suffering some specific misfortune designed to comfort them with philosophical arguments.

Originally, certain philosophical schools had certain specific consolatory arguments which they would deploy, but by the time we get to Cicero’s period, what seems to have happened is that all these arguments have been brought together into a library of potential consolatory arguments that an author might use in a consolatio. Cicero himself wrote a lost consolatio after the death of his daughter Tullia, and he also wrote many letters of consolation to others who were bereaved or in exile. Consolations were multi-purpose – Cicero tells us that it would be appropriate to write a consolatio for those suffering poverty, an inglorious life, exile, the destruction of their country, slavery, lameness or blindness (Tusculan Disputations 3.81). (more…)

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