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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Ancient Athens

In ancient Greece children were rarely commemorated at their death. When parents were permitted to bury their children, it was within the house. Kurtz and Boardman contend that based upon this evidence parents lacked concern and did not demonstrate grief for their children when dead.22 On the other hand, Binford, an archaeologist, argues that burial of children within the house may be interpreted as a form of “sympathetic magic, a statement that the household welcomes children; or a mark of the parents unwillingness to give up a child completely”.23 As among the prehistoric and indigenous peoples (see Chapters 2 and 7, respectively), as well as the ancient Romans, burial within the house was symbolic; the child’s spirit both induced fertility and protected siblings. As discussed further in Chapter 10, in response to grieving parents in ancient Greece, academics and public figures often advised parents to moderate their anguish. Cicero is quoted as saying “If a child dies young, one should console himself easily”.24

Studying 2,000 child burials from 1100 to 0 BC in Ancient Athens, Houby- Nielson notes that infants and children were carefully buried in cemeteries designated and devoted to the young, often in view of the Sacred Road.25 Additionally, great care was exercised in preparing the burial of the child. Women cared for the corpses, and were also mourners and trained lamenters. There were differentiations between the burials of an infant, a young child, and an older child (up to age nine). Infants were buried in jars, closed with a stone or covered with a slab. Food was left with the child so that he or she would be nourished in the afterlife. The young child was buried in household terra cotta basins, or in wood coffins or pits. The older child was buried in a cist tomb. To put these burial practices within the perspective of cultural practices of the time, it is important to note that most adults were cremated up until the sixth century. In addition to being buried with nourishment, toys and gender specific grave goods (e.g., swords, makeup, and needles) accompanied young children. Tiny utensils and jugs for drinking were also left with infants and children. Older children were often buried with jewelry. Over the fifth century the burials of infants and young children increased greatly. Newborns in particular were entombed under fireplace stones. Often this practice indicated the desire by parents to care for the infant’s grave or to have the soul of the child reincarnated into the next baby born to the family.26

Among the Huns at the beginning of the fourth century BC, when Athens was no longer independent, traditional infant and child cemeteries disappeared. The reduction of burial rites for young children was related to the decline of political ideology and the increased appearance of relief decorated grave stones, often commemorating children who were not given a formal burial.

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