16 November 2015

The Dead: Join the Club

Roman death masks
Since the Romans believed the dead lived on as spirits who participated in the living world, influencing the lives of their descendants for good or ill (see last month's post for more on that), funerals in ancient Rome were serious business. Insufficient mourning could doom the deceased to wander the earth without peace, lonely and restless; this might turn them from benevolent lares to malevolent lemures, wreaking havoc on the living, and possibly drawing the ire of the gods on those who had neglected to show the dead the proper respect. Therefore, a decent funeral was a necessity. For wealthier Romans this was no problem; you can read all about the elaborate funerals put on by the well-to-do, sometimes lasting for weeks, featuring everything from a grand lying in state to public parades, games, sacrifices, feasts, and eulogies by famous orators. But what about the ordinary Roman? How did the vast majority of the population – tradesmen, laborers, farmers – provide a suitable farewell for their dearly departed? The answer was thoroughly Roman: they joined a funeral club.

Social clubs, known as collegia (colleges), were quite common in Roman society, so much so that the government kept track of them to make sure they weren't used to foment dissent. Romans formed clubs based on all sorts of associations: trade guilds, religious cults, sports affiliations, various hobbies and pastimes. One of the most common was the funeraticium collegium, the funeral club. Members paid an entrance fee and monthly dues, which were used to pay for each member's eventual funeral expenses. This ensured your funeral would have all the trimmings an ordinary Roman couldn't afford: a good undertaker, a death mask, professional mourners (usually women, paid to wail theatrically and keep up the required level of grief), musicians and singers, a procession to the cemetery outside of town, offerings for your pyre, and a tomb for your ashes. Club members were bound to help plan and attend the funerals of fellow members, and were responsible for providing the cena novientas, the dinner that took place nine days after death to celebrate the life of the deceased. Membership in a funeral club ensured that even the poorest Romans would be ushered into the afterlife in style.

One such club in the Italian town of Lanuvium had the minutes of their first meeting carved in marble as a charter. Dated 133 CE, these by-laws show in great detail how funeral clubs operated:

...it is decided that those who wish to join this club should pay an initiation fee of 100 sesterces and an amphora of good wine. Then each month he should pay five ases. 
...if any member of this club has paid his dues regularly and then dies, 300 sesterces will be allotted from the treasury for his funeral. Of this amount, 50 sesterces will be used to reimburse participants in the funeral procession.
...if any member of this club should die beyond the 20th milestone from this town, three men chosen from this club will go to that place and make arrangements for his funeral. They will then make a report of the expense  without deceit.
...if any member of this club who is a slave should die, and if his body should not be handed over to us because of the unfairness of his master, a funeral will be held for an effigy of him.
...if any member of this club has not paid his dues for six months in a row, and then meets death, arrangements will not be made for his funeral.

Regulations were set down for electing a club president, scheduling meetings and dinners, setting fines for infractions, and investigating fraud. The club president was tasked with making offerings at festivals on behalf of all members, keeping track of the treasury, and hosting the monthly meeting, including providing dinner and oil for bathing.

You might think that a club based on death would only meet when a member had died, but records show that funeral clubs were in fact active social groups. For poor Romans who couldn't afford multiple membership dues, or people who lived in sparsely populated areas, the funeral club might be their only social outlet; it seems morbid to modern sensibilities, but to the Romans being dead was just another version of being alive, and what could be a stronger basis for friendship than helping each other find peace in the afterlife? Such clubs provided community interaction and social welfare, with members looking after each other in good times and bad. Besides the monthly dinner meeting, one can imagine them getting together for holidays and festivals, inviting each other to weddings and births as well as funerals. Roman funeral clubs were more than a group savings account for cremation  they were an example of the Roman integration of death into life, and the importance placed on taking proper care of the dead, even before they've died.

Quotes from the Lanuvium charter are taken from As the Romans Did by Jo-Ann Shelton (1998), pg 97.

Heather Domin has been an Unusual Historicals contributor since 2011. She is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1920s Dublin. Her newest title, The Heirs of Fortune (sequel to Soldier of Raetia) will be released on November 30.