The traditional Greek Funeral Oration (epitaphios logos) is a genre of oratory, which was practiced by many fifth-century Athenians as part of the public funeral rites for those who had fallen in battle. These speeches were initially given on behalf of those who fell during the first year after their death and at their public burial, but the custom gradually spread to include those killed later as well.
Using this definition we can subdivide it into two groups: The first group consists of speeches that were delivered immediately after the death and also at the gravesite itself. The second one contains addresses that took place days, months and even years after death and until their funerals. In both cases, however, these speeches were accompanied by lamentation and praise of the deceased.
The genre was not only limited to Athenians; it was also practiced in other Greek city-states such as Sparta, where epitaphios logos were delivered even when a warrior fell at home during peace time (Xenophon). But the most significant political use of funeral orations took place in Athens, where they became part of public life. This happened after Pericles introduced his reform in 451 BC which included an expansion and strengthening of the democratic institutions and made possible for every common citizen who had fallen fighting in juries and in elections.
This reform, popular courts were created to handle all cases of political crimes and a law was passed that no trial could take place on the day the dead were buried. If there was a delay of more than three days from their burial until their trial, then they would be defended by one orator chosen by lot from each side. In every funeral speech of public figures who died during peace time, praise and criticism of them is always included.
In some cities oaths were thought to have been made before the battle, but it has been proved that this was not true for ancient Athens . This information can be concluded from a passage in Aeschines’ speech against Timarchus where he refers to a letter which Demosthenes wrote to the King of Macedon. However, because the author of this letter is not known, there are some scholars who think that Aeschines made it up to make his opponent look bad .
The order in which they were given was as follows: first came praise; then followed by blame; lastly came the oaths. The epitaphios logos had both political and religious functions at that time. It served as a way for people to forgive one another (for instance, if someone had sued someone else but before he died he begged them to drop the charges), or ask their forgiveness (if somebody accused another person but before dying he asked for forgiveness). They also tried to remind citizens of what should be done so that honor would be preserved for years.
Finally, the funeral orations served to glorify their city and also themselves because according to Philipp August Böckh “it is, above all things, an honor for cities to outshine other cities in number of distinguished dead” . The speeches at these occasions were not only about the virtues of their ancestors but also about the glory they reaped by dying in war. This gives us a hint that at funerals there was no room for self-praise which happens often today during eulogies.
Today, these speeches are not delivered anymore because “their spirit and their purpose have been lost” . This change is due to the changes in society and culture. The reasons for this include:
1) The changing political structure of democratic Athens
2) The belief that it is better to honor those who survive rather than those who died.
3) The lack of public spirit among modern Athenians which was prevalent during the 5th century BC.
4) Different worldview such as democratic, Christian or post-modern which views death differently from that of ancient times. For example, according to Nietzsche’s theory, there was no mourning process after someone dies which means that the survivors did not want to display their bad luck in front of others so they tried to hide their sorrow and grief. This ideal does not exist in our modern world.
Therefore, we can conclude that the ancient funeral orations were very different from those given today because they had political functions which helped them preserve their democracy and keep it strong for years. The speeches also served to strengthen the love between citizens and their city. Moreover, through these speeches they tried to immortalize themselves by demonstrating how glorious it would be to die in war.