Chapter XI. The Funerals.
69. An Athenian's Will. - All Menon's patient's are to-day set out upon the road to recovery. Hipponax, his rival, has been less fortunate. A wealthy and elderly patient, Lycophron, died the day before yesterday. As the latter felt his end approaching, he did what most Athenians may put off until close to the inevitable hour - he made his will, and called in his friends to witness it; and one must hope there can be no doubt about the validity, the signets attached, etc., for otherwise the heirs may find themselves in a pretty lawsuit.
The will begins in this fashion: "The Testament of Lyophron the Marathonian.[*] May all be well: - but if I do not recover from this sickness, thus do I bestow my estate." Then in perfectly cold-blooded fashion he proceeds to give his young wife and the guardianship of his infant daughter to Stobiades, a bachelor friend who will probably marry the widow within two months or less of the funeral. Lycophron gives also specific directions about his tomb; he gives legacies of money or jewelry to various old associates; he mentions certain favorite slaves to receive freedom, and as specifically orders certain others (victims of his displeasure) to be kept in bondage. Lastly three reliable friends are names as executors.
[*]In all Athenian legal documents, it was necessary to give the deme of the interested party or parties.
70. The Preliminaries of a Funeral. - An elaborate funeral is the last perquisite of every Athenian. Even if Lycophron had been a poor man he would now receive obsequies seemingly far out of proportion to his estate and income. It is even usual in Greek states to have laws restraining the amount which may be spent upon funerals, - otherwise great sums may be literally "burned up" upon the funeral pyres. When now the tidings go out that Lycophron's nearest relative has "closed his mouth," after he has breathed his last, all his male kinsfolk and all other persons who HOPE to be remembered in the will promptly appear in the Agora in black himatia[*] and hasten to the barber shops to have their heads shaved. The widow might shave her hair likewise, with all her slave maids, did not her husband, just ere his death, positively forbid such disfigurements. The women of the family take the body in charge the minute the physician has declared that all is over. The customary obol is put in the mouth of the corpse,[+] and the body is carefully washed in perfumed water, clothed in festal white; then woolen fillets are wound around the head, and over these a crown of vine leaves. So arrayed, the body is ready to be laid out on a couch in the front courtyard of the house, with the face turned toward the door so as to seem to greet everybody who enters. In front of the house there stands a tall earthen vase of water, wherewith the visitors may give themselves a purifying sprinkling, after quitting the polluting presence of a dead body.
[*]In the important city of Argos, however, WHITE was the proper funeral color.
[+]This was not originally (as later asserted) a fee to Charon the ferryman to Hades, but simply a "minimum precautionary sum, for the dead man's use" (Dr. Jane Harrison), placed in the mouth, where a Greek usually kept his small change.
71. Lamenting of the Dead. - Around this funeral bed the relatives and friends keep a gloomy vigil. The Athenians after all are southern born, and when excited seem highly emotional people. There are stern laws dating from Solon's day against the worst excesses, but what now occurs seems violent enough. The widow is beating her breast, tearing her hair, gashing her cheeks with her finger nails. Lycophron's elderly sister has ashes sprinkled upon her gray head and ever and anon utters piteous wails. The slave women in the background keep up a hideous moaning. The men present do not think it undignified to utter loud lamentation and to shed frequent tears. Least commendable of all (from a modern standpoint) are the hired dirge singers, who maintain a most melancholy chant, all the time beating their breasts, and giving a perfect imitation of frantic grief. This has probably continued day and night, the mourners perhaps taking turns by relays.
All in all it is well that Greek custom enjoins the actual funeral, at least, on the second day following the death.[*] The "shade" of the deceased is not supposed to find rest in the nether world until after the proper obsequies.[+] To let a corpse lie several days without final disposition will bring down on any family severe reproach. In fact, on few points are the Greeks more sensitive than on this subject of prompt burial or cremation. After a land battle the victors are bound never to push their vengeance so far as to refuse a "burial truce" to the vanquished; and it is a doubly unlucky admiral who lets his crews get drowned in a sea fight, without due effort to recover the corpses afterward and to give them proper disposition on land.
[*]It must be remembered that the Greeks had no skilled embalmers at their service, and that they lived in a decidedly warm climate.
[+]See the well-known case of the wandering shade of Patrocius demanding the proper obsequies from Achilles (Iliad, XXIII. 71).