The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Historical perceptions of a disreputable trade

Friday, 11 October 2013

Roman funeral

 

The following is extracted by a PhD thesis by Sarah E Bond. It describes the social status of funeral workers in earlier times, particularly in ancient Rome where, we discover, FSOs were often employed, also, as executioners. 

According to an inscription from Puteoli dated to the first century BCE: 

“The operae (workers) who shall be provided for this undertaking are not to live on this side of the tower where the grove of Libitina stands today. They are to take their bath after the first hour of the night. They are to enter the town only for the purpose of collecting or disposing of corpses, or inflicting punishments, and on condition that whenever any of them enters or is in the town, then he is to wear a distinctive hat on his head.”

The disrepute that surrounded funeral workers in Roman society is evident within numerous other premodern societies and no doubt stemmed from the precarious position of these professionals within societies as a mediator between the living and the dead.

In Achaemenian Persia, a Zoroastrian text called the Videvdat (law against the demons) lists the sixteen lands created by the god Ahura Mazda.  The text’s instructions on how to cleanse a corpse-bearer indicate the pollution that those in contact with the dead were perceived to have contracted:

 What is to be done with a corpse bearer? He is to be taken to a dry, desolate place without vegetation and put in a walled enclosure. Since he has had prolonged exposure to pollutants, people must bring him clothing and food but stay at least 30 paces away. They then pray “May he renounce every evil thought, evil word, and evil deed!” then he will be clean.

As in Puteoli and ancient Persia, the separation of those dealing with the dead from the public is seen in numerous other cultures, as is the use of special clothing or insignia to warn others.  Yet funeral workers were not the only professional class outcast by the societies they served; they were often part of a larger, yet still marginal, community.

 In medieval Japan, there was ostracism of ‘impure’ tradesmen—tanners, floor-mat weavers, undertakers, tomb caretakers, and executioners—who populated a caste. In early modern Germany, undertakers and gravediggers were among the professions of unehrlichen Leuten (dishonorable people) who were often denied membership in journeymen guilds and who could be denied the power to serve as guardian or heir, take an oath, prosecute another in court, or even prove their innocence. The rejection of gravediggers by the journeyman guilds illustrates the struggle waged by early modern guilds to establish a clear demarcation between moral and immoral trades, much in the manner that Rome did during the Republic. The development of this “guild morality” among German cities’ journeymen associations—themselves civic symbols that marched in processions, held religious services, and established contracts with the local councils—placed gravediggers outside the civic sphere.

The marginalization of groups of funeral workers from reputable society is then common throughout history.

[In Rome] lower level workers such as lecticarii (bier carriers) and pollinctores (morticians) appear to have incurred the most disrepute from their polluting contact with the dead and to have incurred infamia. Moreover, the disrepute surrounding funeral workers can be further envisaged by examining the use of servile workers in particular as the preferred laborers that came into direct contact with the deceased and prepared them for burial. Slaves could perform various jobs within the funeral association and were used as musicians, bier-carriers, executioners, and morticians. It is likely that in Rome and other urban centers in Italy and the empire, slaves did predominate as lower-level funeral workers and executioners within many societates. Slave labor was essential to both the urban economy and the mortuary trade of many Roman cities.

The financial success of a collegium of Libitina (roughly, funeral home) depended on the number of burials that it undertook, and literary sources, such as Seneca, indicate a suspicion that funeral workers may have hoped for death. Thus there was an added stigma attached to funeral workers as profit seekers. Whereas familial burials were an act of piety, these professionals—as Valerius observed—were perceived to value quaestus rather than pietas. The contempt for profit-based services within Roman society certainly added to the disrepute of funeral professionals.

 

6 comments on “Historical perceptions of a disreputable trade

  1. Jed

    Saturday 12th October 2013 at 11:56 pm

    Fascinating post – thank you.
    This line cleared up one thing I’ve oft puzzled over:
    “on condition that whenever any of them enters or is in the town, then he is to wear a distinctive hat on his head.”

    • Kitty

      Monday 14th October 2013 at 9:23 am

      Jed: and a silver-topped cane to fight people off with?!

  2. Saturday 12th October 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Enjoyed reading Sarah’s thesis, most intriguing. So great to see academics post their work in the public domain.

  3. Richard

    Friday 11th October 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Fascinating PhD subject. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Friday 11th October 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Interesting piece. Even though the stigma of being a funeral director has subsided I still do detect it especially for women. I have a female friend when introduced and is asked her profession will get a distinct feeling of surprise and a misgiving around people. I have seen the look on their face change. She is a professional and is proud of her chosen profession.

    • Friday 11th October 2013 at 5:17 pm

      Lots of superstitions about death and cemeteries, etc, have evaporated but, yes, the social stigma attaching to those who work with the dead lives on — not strongly, perhaps, but persistently.

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