[Content Warning: This post contains a photo of human skeletal remains.]

When we talk about funerals, many of us think of the deceased being either cremated or buried in a grave, and that's the end of the process. But for the ancient Minoans, it was only the beginning.

Among the displays at museums whose holdings include Minoan artifacts, you'll find larnaxes.* A larnax is a sarcophagus: a box to put a dead body in - a coffin that isn't buried in the ground, but is instead sealed up in a tomb. Those are larnaxes in the photo at the top of this post.

The thing is, if you've ever seen a larnax in person or seen a photo of someone standing next to one, it's obvious they're not big enough to hold a whole body. That's because they weren't used for primary burial, but instead were part of a long, involved process in which the deceased's remains continued to be cared for by their family and community. A person's death wasn't the end of people's relationship with them, and the ancestors and spirits of the dead were important aspects of Minoan spiritual practice.

When a person died in ancient Crete, their body was first laid in a tomb. In very early times, this might be inside a cave in the mountains that rise up out of the center of the island. Eventually, the Minoans began building tombs where they placed their dead. This part would look familiar to us: Preparing the body, holding funeral rites, and interring the body in a tomb.

But that was only the first step.

People were entombed when they died, no matter what season it might be. But there were also seasonal activities associated with the tombs. These involved communal feasting and making toasts to the dead on the plaza in front of the tomb. These communal events were large enough that archaeologists have found hundreds of the cups used to pour libations and drink toasts to the spirits of the dead. We think these events took place at grain harvest time, which is springtime in the Mediterranean.

Along with the feasting, toasts, and libations, the people would go into the tombs and check on the bodies of the deceased. They were looking for any corpse that had decomposed to the point that nothing was left but a skeleton. At that point, they would take the skeleton apart and put the bones in a larnax. This is called secondary burial, and it probably involved a ritual every bit as important and sacred as the initial entombment.

In early times, the bones might be placed in a pithos, a large storage jar that we think had womb symbolism for the Minoans. Eventually, larnaxes became the most common method of secondary burial - including, eventually, some shaped like bathtubs! There's no accounting for funerary fashion, I guess.

Here you can see a secondary burial in a larnax from Arkhanes, on the right in the photo:

Minoan larnax with human remains inside
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

You can see that there are two skulls in the larnax. Multiple people from the same family would receive secondary burial together in a larnax or pithos - people were part of a community in death as much as in life. And friends and family would continue to bless and celebrate those people at their communal feasts.

Even after the big temples were built and Minoan religion became formal and institutionalized, the people still respected and revered the spirits of the dead, holding seasonal feasts, making offerings, and lovingly providing secondary burial for their ancestors. I'm told this practice still exists today in some rural areas around the Mediterranean. It's definitely a different way of dealing with death than our modern western sanitized version, where the family doesn't even prepare the body anymore, but hands that task over to a paid professional.

Regardless of the types of funerals we have today, we can still honor the dead and bless them with our attention and our reverence. Whether you choose to do that at harvest, on the deceased's birthday, or at some other time that has meaning for you, I encourage you to develop the practice. After all, the ancestors are the ones on whose shoulders we stand.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.


Main blog image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

* The Greek word in the singular is larnax (λάρναξ). The Greek plural is larnakes (λάρνακεσ) but the word has been used enough in English that the plural has now been regularized into the English style: larnaxes. It's not wrong to use the Greek plural, but it's no longer necessary and can be considered a bit hoity-toity, just as Latin plurals like octopi have been replaced with the English versions (octopuses).