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It is important to note that there are no hard and fast beliefs about the afterlife - they vary according to the differing philosophies of individuals. The contemporary beliefs may, however, be influenced by those of ancient Rome.

Popular pagan beliefs about the afterlife in ancient Rome[]

At the immediate time of death, the soul would begin its journey to the underworld where the dead reside. This journey began by being escorted to a river, the river Styx, by spirits specially appointed by the gods for such a task. Once at the river, the dead would be met by Charon the ferryman. When a person died, a gold coin would be placed in their mouth which would then be given to Charon. Some considered it to be a fee for transportation across the Styx, while others thought it was symbolic of the reliance of man upon the gods. 

After crossing the river, the dead passed Cerberus, a three-headed dog owned by Dis Pater (also called Pluto). Dis Pater was the god of the underworld and it was believed that his dog was a judge of character who would become ferocious to people who had committed wrong doings in their lifetime or to those who were trying to leave the underworld to return to the earth above. The next stage was judgement. Minos, Rhadamanthos, and Aeacus were the three judges of life and every person would eventually have to give an account of their life to them. Based on the account of life given, one would be given water from the river Lethe which the Romans believed made a person forget their past life.

Souls were then sent to different places based on their good or bad deeds. The first, highly regarded by the Romans, was Elysian Fields. This was a place for warriors, heros and those who had died with honor. It was generally believed that good emperors also met their final resting place here. The second was the plain of asphodel, where good people lived as shades. Tartarus was the third and final realm, which was reserved for evil people. Here, they would be punished until they had repaid their debt to society. At times, a reprieve came in the shape of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. After giving him a bribe for Cerberus, she would send the soul back across the Styx to life again, meaning that the Romans had some belief in reincarnation.

While Pluto was the god of the underworld, he was not the god of death. This was a role held by Mors (the Latin word for death), who was dispatched by Pluto to collect the dead for him, once the strings of life had been cut by the Fates or Parcae. If Mors or Pluto decided to refuse a soul entry to the underworld, the deceased would be confined to Limbo for all eternity. Whatever the final destination, when a person died, it was believed that the soul lived on. This resulted in some common traits in burials with many tombs housing decaptitated corpses. Bodies would often be cut into pieces to prevent them from rising again and haunting the living. In other instances, sarcophagi were weighted down with heavy stones. 

Funerals in ancient Rome []

Roman funerals depended very much on personal wealth and the circumstances of death. Criminals who had been executed were often buried in mass graves while the poor generally had simple funerals which they planned for by becoming members of a kind of funeral union called a collegia funeraticia. Many people believed in the afterlife, and Roman funerary customs suggest that it was the belief that the journey to the afterlife began at the immediate moment of death. Corpses were given respect and deference which was reflected in the long processions that formed the heart of Roman funeral rites.

Preparing the Body

Bodies were usually prepared for viewing by libitinarii (undertakers). As well as being cleansed and dressed, the libitinarii would embalm the bodies with gypsum plaster and according to faith, would place a gold coin in the mouth of the corpse. A common practice was to place beeswax in the nostrils to prevent evil spirits taking control of the dead body. The libitinarii would then ensure that the person had everything nessecary for the afterlife. This included money, jewellery, clothes and eating utensils.


The rich enjoyed colorful and lengthy mourning rituals. Viewing was decided on wealth and social status. The wealthy would be displayed on marble slabs covered with purple cloth for up to a week before their funerals took place. The poor were usually cremated just a day after death. Mourners paid their respects while the body laid in state with professional mourners being employed to keep a permanent vigil. These mourners were always women who were trained singers. They were known as praeficae and would sing special funeral dirges called naeniae. Bodies were never left alone after death as it was believed that this would cause anger and encourage haunting. Corpses were usually displayed in temples or atriums with their feet pointing to the doorway.

The Funeral Procession

A funeral procession was a public display of what sort of life the person had had. The wealthy had elaborate and colorful parades in which they were carried to their final resting places accompanied by hired mourners, mimes, dancers and their family wearing masks of their important ancestors. Family members rode in chariots and soldiers bodies were often accompanied by their army colleagues. Processions ranged from the grand and extravagant to the simple and small for poorer Romans. The procession started from the place where the body had been laying in state to outside the city where a funeral pyre or tomb was waiting. People in the procession usually wore robes of red or white, traditional mourning colors. If the deceased was an important figure, the procession would stop in the Forum and the body would be displayed upright while the eldest male relative delivered a funeral oration called a laudatio funebris.

Burial or Cremation in ancient Rome[]

The Romans employed both techniques with cremation being generally favored more than burial. The wealthy had usually constructed their tombs in their lifetimes, specifying every detail to masons. Though called burial, it would be more correct to call Roman burials inhumations as corpses rarely touched the earth. Bodies were placed in coffins or in vaults made of stone or marble. The wealthy were usually placed in sarcophagi which were housed in grand mausoleums. A large pot would often be buried into the ground at the entrance to these mausoleums where offerings were placed by mourners.

Mausoleums and sarcophagi became more elaborate as time went on. Effigies of the dead became almost obligatory but fashionable carvings showed scenes from a person's life. Tombs were elaborate and were a sign of wealth, even in death.

Cremation was popular, with corpses being burned on funeral pyres. The ashes were then collected and placed in urns which were then placed in columbariums with each urn being housed in a small niche called a nidus. Columbariums, tombs, and mausoleums were all built with public access as a vital feature so that the living could pay their respects to the dead.

After Death (ancient Rome)[]

Nine days after the body had been disposed of, a feast called a Cena Novendialis would be held. During the nine day period, the house was believed to be cursed, in a dangerous state called Funesta. Branches of yew or cypress branches were placed by the doors of houses to warn passers by and at the end of the mourning period, the house would be cleaned thoroughly to rid any possibility of a dead person's ghost returning to haunt the house. It was however, permitted to commemorate ancestors on specially designated days;

  • February 13th - February 21st : Parentalia
  • May 9th, May 11th and May 13th : Lemuria

It was considered vital to remember dead souls on these days because the Romans held strong beliefs about the possibilites of reincarnation. The dead could return to earth as a human being or as an animal and see that their relatives were not mourning them, leading to revenge. A highly feared state was Mulo, in which a person would become the living dead, and pursue revenge against all those who had wrong him in life. For this reason, offerings were regularly made at tombs and shrines.


  • This WikiPagan entry was almost entirely sourced from the article "Death in Ancient Rome" on the now-defunct wiki called Wikideath.