The Friendly Funeralista

Funeral Games

Posted on: March 7, 2010

During my misspent youth, I dithered at University trying to find some direction for my life.  For some strange reason, I took a number of classics courses (which, I might add were really interesting!).  Unfortunately, my classics career came to an abrupt end upon learning that an inability to fluently read and write greek and latin  posed a huge barrier to this line of study … but I digress.

One of the great works I studied during this time was Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad”.  The poem tells of the Trojan war.  In book 23, we hear about the funeral games hosted by Achilles for his dear friend Patroclus who died in battle.  Funeral games were hosted as part of the funeral rituals for prominent warriors in the ancient world.  They served as a means of honouring the memory of the deceased.  Achilles put up some big prizes for the winners to entice all the best athletes to attend the games that honoured Patroclus.  It also guaranteed a good showing of spectators at the event.  I did a little scooting around the internet and found that funeral games had another purpose:

“The[re] are a number of possible explanations of the custom of funeral games such as to honor a dead warrior by reenacting his military skills, or as a renewal and affirmation of life to compensate for the loss of a warrior or as an expression of the aggressive impulses that accompany rage over the death. Perhaps they are all true at the same time.”

Another source states that the games provided a safe haven for people to mourn.  After all, no one would take much notice of someone shedding a few tears and keening in the midst of all the activity of the competition.  I think a few other benefits could be derived from the funeral games such as the activity they provided the mourners, the bringing together of the community for a common purpose and the sense of control that athletic prowess provides to those who have been thrown out of control as a result of the death.  The major benefit however was the lasting memory that something positive was achieved by the death.  I wonder how this ancient tradition could be adopted to our modern-day funeral rites? Dodgeball? Football fields abutting cemeteries — I’m not sure this would catch on … I guess the current standards of having a funeral and visitation serve the same purposes as the ancient funeral games.  They bring us together, allow us to honour the deceased, they give us a sense of control, provide activity for the bereaved and a safe time and place to mourn.  Good things come of deaths when mourners make memorial donations to charities in lieu of flowers or attend memorial golf tournaments and hockey games or endow hospitals and educational institutions with the resources to further their work.  Got to give it to the ancients … they put a good system in place!

As a final thought … a week after the close of the Winter Olympic Games, I discovered another interesting fact:  The ancient Olympic Games were an off shoot of the ancient funeral games.  Keep that one in your back pocket next time you’re watching Jeopardy!


1 Response to "Funeral Games"

Interesting. I would like to see anything other than the traditional line of mourners passing by the dead body and saying their goodbyes.

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