Every society has its own way of dealing with death. This has to include practical ways of disposing of the body, and ceremonies to express spiritual and emotional feelings.
The Romans had deep-rooted traditions and customs. In early Roman society cremation, the disposal of a body by burning, was the most popular funeral style. A Roman funeral was organised by professional undertakers. A funeral procession was led through the city, pausing at the forum to display the deceased and read a 'laudation', or celebratory piece about the life and achievements of the deceased person. Some Roman families wore masks of the family ancestors during the procession. Depending on the amount of money spent, musicians, teams of mourning women, dancers and mime artistes could be provided.
From the forum the procession went to the place of cremation outside the city walls. The body was cremated on a pyre in a special area of the cemetery called the 'ustrium'. After the cremation the flames were doused with wine. Gifts and some of the main possessions of the deceased were also cremated at the same time. The ashes were then placed in urns or caskets and left in the care of the family. Some urns were walled up with masonry, or buried in the ground. A lead pipe would provide access to the urn from outside the wall or earth. This would allow offerings to the dead, and the Gods, to be poured into the urn.
Roman funeral clubs often deposited the cremated remains of family members in a collective tomb called a 'columbarium' or dovecote. Each urn was given a 'nidus' or pigeonhole.
Burial in cemeteries became more popular by the 3rd century, probably because of the influence of Jewish and Christian religions, and a stronger belief in the power of the afterlife. Many Romans felt that the dead, in their burial tombs, could influence the fortunes of those still living. Special ceremonies were held beside the tombs, and gifts left to honour, or placate, the dead. Inhumation burials take longer to excavate and give far more information to archaeologists than cremations. Upper class Romans were laid to rest in clay containers called sarcophagi in large sculptural structures called mausoleums. Middle class Romans were buried in shrouds made out of clay tiles called tegulae. The graves were marked by a clay jar known as amphorae partially sunk into the ground. This allowed offerings to be given to the deceased.