Mind, Body & Spirit
Memorial Day: Then and Now
fmi Donald Engels

   Since 1866, Americans have marked Memorial Day with cut flowers and somber graveside visits. But according to a University of Arkansas researcher, memorial days in ages past were not always such a solemn occasion.

   Ancient Greeks and Romans held public festivals and threw food into tombs, says Dr. Donald Engels, professor of history.

  "As with today, memorial days were emotional events - days to remember loved ones," said Engels, "But among the Greeks and Romans, they were also times of celebration with feasting and dancing."

  The memorial holidays of Greece and Rome were each called Ancesteria and Paternalia. Every year for Ancesteria, Greek families would adorn their loved ones' graves with flowers, just as American families do today.

  But rather than decorating gravesites as a social practice of respect and remembrance, the Greeks offered flowers to please their ancestors' spirits.

  "The Greeks felt that the deceased had a personal interest to see that they were still remembered among their family and the community," said Engels. "Flowers were placed as evidence for the dead to know that they were honored."

  The Romans had a different way of remembering the dead within their families. When a person died, a plaster mold was applied to the face. That mold was used to carve a bust of the deceased.

  In subsequent funerals, these busts would be carried through the streets, escorting the new body to its resting-place.

  "These funeral processions must have been a fantastic sight - dozens of people behind the deceased, carrying busts of their ancestors," Engels said. "It showed that the departed were still part of the family, that there was an unbroken continuity."

  Partly because families lived on the land of their ancestors, loved ones were considered participants in family activities even after death. Each year, families would travel to the local cemetery and host an elaborate picnic on the grave of the deceased.

  The departed loved one was believed to participate in these feasts. Often, a chair was left empty to accommodate the spirit, or food offerings were tossed into the tomb. Engels asserts that many of the gravesites were equipped with special openings through which food or wine could be delivered to the dead.

  "They never could deal with the fact that these people were wholly gone," said Engels. "They believed, 'the dead guy's here; we have this chair for him; and we'll pour this wine down the hole to make him happy.'"

  But the dead were more than just guests at the party. They could also be a malevolent presence if their spirits were not properly honored.

  Those who neglected to feast with their ancestors could unleash a hostile spirit to wreak havoc on their family and on the larger community. For this reason, memorial festivities became a part of the community conscience - a social duty as well as a family tradition.

  "The feasts were considered a public ritual, so the community knew whether your family was fulfilling its duty to the dead. You could be held responsible for the harm caused by malevolent ancestors," said Engels. "As a result, it became a community effort to keep the dead satisfied."

  However, the threat of angry ancestors was not the only reason that communities began to honor their heroic dead. Just as the Civil War inspired America to found Memorial Day, the Peloponnesian War convinced Greece to memorialize its fallen soldiers.

  More than 20 communities in the United States continue to bicker over which town held the first Memorial Day in 1866. A century later, the federal government declared Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of the holiday.

  But Engels says the very first memorial ceremony was held in Athens, Greece, in 431 BC when Pericles offered a funeral oration for the soldiers of the Peloponnesian War. The event was a large-scale public commemoration in which the entire city of Athens participated.

  "This type of wartime memorial pulls people together," he said. "Those who die in combat become the community dead - a group of people to be honored by all."

  After more than a millennium, some memorial traditions have remained unchanged. But Engels asserts that the way people think about commemorating their dead is vastly different.

  "These days, memorial ceremonies are not so much about satisfying the dead as they are about satisfying the living," he said. "But in earlier times, communities had a vested interest in keeping their loved ones honored and happy."


IMPORTANT NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.


Website Maintenance and Promotion