Roman and Christian Funerals: The conclamatio

In the late antique, a prominent feature of the funerary rites was the conclamatio: the calling out of the deceased’s name. Numerous sarcophagi and reliefs from antiquity depict the conclamatio. The Haterii here is an example of this. The deceased rests upon a couch (κλίνη) while those who stand around her call out her name. They would continue to do this until the burial. If one was cremated, it seems as though the conclamatio continued until the pyre was doused, often with wine and water. An interesting note: people who were cremated often had a piece of flesh removed to be buried. Servius, in his commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid says that the purpose of calling out the name is simply to make sure they’re dead.(1) This was probably how the custom began (along with washing the body with warm water), but it later took on religious connotations. It probably served an apotropaic purpose, keeping the spirits of the deceased from sticking around the house (where the wake was held). This also seems to have been the purpose of the loud music and dirges at funerals.(2) The musicians can be seen on the Haterii relief in the lower left corner. Wealthy families would hire professional musicians and professional mourners (praeficiae) to lament at funerals.

So what about the Christians? They seem to have rejected it. There are no clear instances of a conclamatio in any early Christian literature of which I’m aware. Funeral dirges were replaced by the antiphonal singing of the Psalms. Referencing 1 Thess 4.16, Tertullian says the loud trumpets should not be played at a Christian funeral lest the buried Christian miss the trumpet of the angel.(3) Because the Christians had abandoned the traditional Roman and Greek views of the afterlife (which, in the late ancient world, were numerous), they had no reason to participate in those particular mourning customs that had grown up around those traditional Roman beliefs.

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(1)Servius, Commentarii in Vergilii Aeneidem 4.218
(2)J. Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der Heidnischen Antike und Christlichen Frühzeit,195.
(3)Tertullian, De Corona Militis 11

1 Comment

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One response to “Roman and Christian Funerals: The conclamatio

  1. Laura from Barcelona - Spain.

    Thank you for your help. Your explanation has been very clear. It should be very impressive to hear the name of the deceased, while nowadays normally funerals are very quiet. In some places of Spain, it was usual till recently to cry very loud during the funerals. Rgrds.

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