Burial Practices in Ancient Rome


By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Death was an integral part of life for the Romans. They had enormous reverence for their ancestors, and it was the focal point of many family rituals. Death and burial were subjects of great concern to the Romans. What happened to the dead, and how did Romans perpetuate the memories after their demise? When Romans died, why was the fate of their bodies dependent on their economic status?

Painting done by Albert Kretschmer showing the wealthy Romans in different costumes.
The rich Romans could afford to build individual tombs for themselves. As per tradition, their heirs constructed them. (Image: by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach/Public domain)

Puticuli: Burial Pits for Poor Romans

Burials were expensive in ancient Rome. Sometimes, the poor in Rome could not receive any burial. They were then tossed into open pits called puticuli, meaning ‘to rot or decompose’. Those pits held a mixture of human and animal corpses, garbage, and excrement. Some of them were large, containing 24,000 corpses each. The Roman authorities were concerned to having those pits so close to the city premises as it did not reflect well on the city. Therefore, they passed a legislation forcing people to dump their corpses further away from the city, but it did not do much good.

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Burial Clubs in Ancient Rome

Therefore, anyone who could afford to, joined a burial club with entry fee of 100 sesterces, and new members sometimes also had to provide a jar of wine. In addition, they had to pay reasonable monthly dues. Some of those clubs had a mixture of slaves and free people. If a member of the club died, the others would pay for the funeral expenses. If someone committed suicide, however, he was considered to have forfeited his right to a funeral. Burial clubs had elaborate rules, governing what the members had to do for each other. For example, there were different requirements if someone died within the city, outside the city limits but within 20 miles of them, or at a distance of more than 20 miles from the city.

Burial Club Activities

In addition to burying any dead members, the other main activity of the club was to hold a series of feasts, every other month. Some of the dues were used to fund those feasts, and at each one, several members were responsible for providing a certain minimum amount of food. Sometimes, a burial club would pool its money to buy a mausoleum where urns containing the ashes of cremated members were kept. Those were excavated like caves or an aboveground structure, called a columbaria. Another way for the club to earn money was to rent out some of the extra space to non-members. Dining facilities were attached to the columbaria, to hold the feasts. The purpose of those meals was a way to honor the dead and an excuse to have a good party.

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Elaborative Individual Tombs

Only wealthy people could afford to have individual tombs built for themselves which were constructed along the roads leading into Rome. Tombs took many forms and were frequently very elaborate and most common type resembled miniature marble houses. Others were shaped like columns, towers, or cones. One of the most famous, was the tomb of Gaius Cestius. He had his tomb erected in the form of a marble pyramid 60 feet high. Another man who had taken pride in his profession of bread baker, had his tomb built to resemble a gigantic marble bread oven, into which his family’s bodies were inserted like loaves of bread. Tombs often had pipes protruding out at the top. The idea was that the family would have a picnic on the tomb and share the feast with the deceased by dropping food and pouring wine down the tube.

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Tomb Building Tradition

It was tradition that, rather than building the tomb, their heir constructed them. To ensure that heirs built an impressive structure, many wills contained detailed directions for the type of tomb the person wanted. It was stipulated that the heir would not receive his inheritance until he had buried the deceased in the specified manner. Many heirs resented such effort and money spent on those monuments, and as a small consolation, included their own names on the monuments. In most of the monuments excavated, the name of the commemorator who built it was given more prominence than the name of the deceased. 

Picture of the remains of  a stone tomb which were mostly afforded by the wealthy in the Roman society.
To make sure heirs built impressive structures, many wills contained detailed directions for the type of tomb the person wanted. (Image: salajean/Shutterstock)

Standard Roman religious beliefs did not include a well-developed notion of an afterlife. Romans were anxious to leave some enduring memory of themselves behind. Elaborate tombs were one way to do that and demands placed on their descendants that they celebrated a feast on their tomb. Some men made sure they would be remembered by setting up funds of money, the interest from which was employed for certain activities like providing an annual feast for the people of their hometown.         

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Tombs With Little Reverence

Picture of a church located beneath a cemetery which was a common site in Rome as Romans did not show importance for their tombs.
Many Christian churches plundered Roman cemeteries for building materials. (Image: BSG_1974/Shutterstock)

Despite all the efforts to leave an enduring legacy, many of those attempts were in vain. Tombs were often sold and their valuable marble reused. Poor people and the homeless broke into mausoleums, threw out the corpses, and used them as dwellings.

Many Christian churches plundered Roman cemeteries for building materials. The Romans sometimes showed little reverence for their own tombs. The public toilets in the town of Ostia were constructed out of old tombstones.

A Ceremony to Place Remains into a Tomb

Among wealthy Romans, the installation of a deceased man or woman’s remains into a tomb was accompanied by a ceremony. The deceased was dressed in fine clothing and a wreath placed on the head. A solemn parade processed from his or her house to the Forum with family, friends, and clients marching in that. The wax death masks of illustrious ancestors were placed on current family members, dressed up in clothing, indicating the highest rank that an individual had attained. At the Forum, those impersonating the ancestors sat on a row of ivory chairs placed on the rostra, the Speaker’s platform with the corpse placed on the rostra, propped upright.

Common Questions about Burial in Ancient Rome

Q: Where were people usually buried in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, people with enough wealth could be buried in individual tombs while the poor Romans were sometimes tossed into open pits, called puticuli, just outside the city walls.

Q: What did Romans do with their dead?

Romans buried their dead and tombs were built by their heirs where the dead body was placed. To ensure that heirs built an impressive structure, many wills contained detailed directions for the type of tomb the person wanted.

Q: What did Romans believe about the afterlife?

Roman religious beliefs did not include a well-developed notion of an afterlife. That is why Romans were anxious to leave some enduring memory of themselves behind.

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