The Birth of the Pre-Paid Funeral Plan

17/04/13

Pyramids of EgyptThe birth of the funeral plan is regarded by some as the great expense and extravagance that the Egyptian Pharaohs went to, to build their elaborate mastabas, crypts and pyramids. After all, these are probably the first records of anyone planning their funeral. I however tend to disagree with that view in that it was never a funeral plan in the sense that we think of today. It was never meant to comfort or ease the pain of the family left behind and anyone who could afford to have a monument like this built, certainly had no financial woes that prevented them or their family from paying for a funeral.  Their main worry was that the tomb they were creating could hold enough of their wealth to provide for their afterlife. It does make you wonder though why they kept trying to take it with them when they knew full well that tomb raiders were more likely to benefit from their treasures than they were, but, I digress.  Poor people did not worry about their funerals.  They were also mummified and at the very least placed in the crouching position in the ground or in a cave or if they were lucky enough to have had a generous master, they were left a space in their master’s tomb. Either way, whether you were rich or poor, you received some sort of funeral rite according to the ancient religious customs.

Colosseum - Amphitheatre in Rome, Italy

Let’s fast forward to pre-Christian Roman times where Emperors provided entertainment in the form of wild animal hunts, executions and battles to the death.  The Roman Empire was in many ways a glorification of death.  In Roman times, mourning was not seen as a role that was fulfilled by the family.  Instead, professional mourners were hired who wailed during ostentatious funeral processions of pomp and ceremony while actors wore imagines (funeral masks) to honour the exaggerated accomplishments of ancestors.  A formal oration would take place during which the deceased was praised and everything that was said was recorded by scribes as a testament to the deceased as ‘according to the Romans’ sensibility, anonymity in death was the worst fate, for it was remembrance of the deceased (memoria), which secured immortality.’ [Linda Gigante – Death and Disease in Ancient Rome]. Needless to say, only the elite could afford such excess.

The death of a poor person was treated very differently.  Although the Romans practised both cremation and burial, both were expensive and poor people whose families could not afford to pay for a funeral were simply discarded by public undertakers (libitinarii) as if they were rubbish. They were simply thrown into pits known as the puticuli, ‘…so called because the corpses which had been thrown out (putescebant) 'used to rot' there in the public place…’ [Valerie M. Hope – Death in Ancient Rome].

Fearing the terrible fate of anonymity in the discarding of their bodies in the puticuli, the common people of Rome (plebs) of less than adequate means, including slaves (servi), began to contribute to burial societies which guaranteed that they would be cremated and their remains be interred in a collective columbarium; yes, quite possibly the birth of the pre-paid funeral plan.Columbarium in Ostia with niches for the urns which contained the ashes.