1872 Funeral Procession in Athens

This blog originally published on http://HellenicGenealogyGeek.com on September 30, 2008

1872 Funeral Procession in Athens (from The Greeks of To-day*)

One cannot walk out many days in Athens without witnessing a funeral procession.  Long before it comes in sight, the ear catches the low monotonous chaunt of the priests, who are preceded by boys in white robes bearing the crucifix and ecclesiastical insignia, in presence of which every head is uncovered, and every hand makes the sign of the cross.  The corpse is exposed in full view in an open coffin of light material, covered with white or black cloth, with silver or gilt decorations, the cover of which, marked with a long diagonal cross, is carried before the procession.  The body is dressed in the customary clothes of the deceased, the head slightly elevated, and the hands folded in front of a panel picture of the Virgin set up on the breast.  If it be a female, the cheeks and lips are painted, vermilion, intended to reproduce a natural expression, but which gives to the corpse an artificial and ghastly look.  Even to one accustomed to witness the exposure of the dead in Oriental countries, there is something painful in the idea of exhibiting to the glare of day, and amidst the whirl and insensibility of the public street, the features of a deceased person who in life may have been known only to the little group of mourners gathered about the remains.  But there is something to be said in favor of this mode of burial, over that of our own.  I confess to a feeling of the most tender reverence, when a funeral procession passes in Greece, which is not awakened by that of the stiff black hearse, the boxed up coffin, and the formal line of mourners, marching two by two in its wake, through the streets of western cities.  At Greek funerals the hearse is not generally employed, and the light, open casket is borne by the hands of the nearest friends of the deceased, while the other mourners walk, not march, in a group around it.  Thus they literally carry and accompany, rather than follow, their friend to the grave, and gaze upon the face which was dear to them, up to the moment when he is laid in his last resting place.  The funerals of the poor are even more touching to behold.  A single priest, perhaps, performs the chaunt, and half a dozen mourners, representing the little household, bear between them the coffin, which is composed of the cheapest material, and covered with white muslin.  When a person of distinguished position dies, the funeral procession becomes an imposing spectacle, with the bishop and priests in their gorgeous sacerdotal robes, numerous lighted candles, and martial music.  I once saw the body of a venerable bishop of the Greek Church carried in procession through the streets of Athens.  He was seated in his bishop’s chair, elevated above the people, and was clothed in his canonical robes, with mitre on head and the crosier uplifted in his hand.  A cloth around the forehead bound it to the back of the chair, but not sufficiently close to prevent the head from bobbing up and down, as if the dead man’s pale and rigid features were saluting, for the last time, the people among whom he had exercised his holy office for over three-score years.  In this position he was placed in the grave, a peculiar honor accorded to his ecclesiastical rank.  The dead – chiefly from climatic considerations – are buried within twenty-four hours of their decease.  This is very shocking to foreign ideas; but the custom has come to be complied with, within a briefer number of hours than the law’s requirement.  Indeed the feeling is, that the sooner the painful duty is over, and the house freed from the distressing spectacle of a corpse, the sooner will the minds of the mourners be relieved from association with what is repulsive, and return to the inward contemplation of their friend, as they knew him in their midst.  Thus it often happens that the first intimation of a death is conveyed in the printed invitation to the funeral.  I have conversed with a gentleman at an evening party, who appeared to be in the highest enjoyment of physical health, and the day following witnessed his interment, he having expired in the meantime from apoplexy.  I had once a business appointment with a near neighbor, and on going to fulfil it, met his dead body coming down the door steps.  I was sitting one evening at the bed-side of a distinguished American Missionary, who was describing to me his peculiar malady, and the next afternoon I saw him laid in the Protestant Cemetery.  The modern Greek may well exclaim with the ancient Greek:

“Who knows what fortunes on to-morrow wait, 

Since Charmis one day well to us appeared,

And on the next was mournfully interred!”

The removal of the body from the house frequently excites the most painful scenes.  The realization of the parting rushes upon the minds of the afflicted family before time has brought the feelings into subjection, and agonizing shrieks and wild gesticulations accompany the first movement of the funeral cortege.  It is the custom, after the decease of the occupant, to drape the interior of the house with mourning.  I was once the guest of a country gentleman, whose wife had died nearly a year before my visit.  The appearance that greeted me on entering the mansion, was not at all enlivening.  Every article of furniture, from piano to footstool, was draped in black, and even the key of the tobacco box had a small streamer of crape attached to it.  As to the huge four-post bedstead upon which I was invited to repose, it was like mounting a catafalque; while to expect “sweet dreams” under the folds and festoons of its funeral canopy, and massive silver cross and picture of the Virgin suspended over my head, was equivalent to depending upon the special intervention of the blessed Mary in my behalf.


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* The Greeks of To-day by Charles K. Tuckerman, Late Minister Resident of the United States at Athens;  Published by G. P. Putnam & Sons, New York – 1872