Various though are the reasons for the human death, there exists little difference with respect to funeral ceremonies and posthumous practices. Similar to present-day practices, the family of the deceased were in charge of the funeral ceremony and arrangements in the Antiquity. The local administration official was in charge of the funeral in the event that the deceased had no family, relatives and/or acquintances. Necessary arrangements for the burial were executed by either family members or older female members of first-degree relation the day after death. First and foremost, the women washed and anointed the body with oil. Enshrouded with his/ her head open, the body was placed on a divan or kline (couch) with a blanket and covered thereafter; the head was supported with a pillow. Furthermore, the chin was tied in order to have the mouth closed. The top of the shroud was decorated with flowers, ribbons and accessories.
During the mourning ceremony at the residence of the deceased or by the grave, male relatives of the departed stood in homage by raising their right hands whereas females shed tears, tore their hair out and bewailed by beating hands on the chest (elegizing). The deceased was transferred from home to the graveyard and buried coupled by a ceremony the following day. Furthermore, during the ceremony, funeral attendees would sacrifice an animal and leave presents on the grave. Placing coins in the mouth or hand of the deceased was a common practice. By this method, the deceased was able to pay the fee to the ferryman, Kharon, who was to take him/her to the “Underworld.” Following the ceremony by the grave, those who attended would return to the residence of the deceased and partake in a meal. In the Antiquity, the dead were buried in graves either directly or by placing the ashes of the deceased in a utensil following cremation. Previously buried in simple holes in the soil, bodies started to be buried in cists and even mausoleums. Undoubtedly such practices were closely related with the economic and social status of the family of the deceased.
It can be said that bodies were directly buried in the soil covered with brick blocks, in large jars called pithos, or sargophagi in Byzantium. The deceased was buried in a marble rectangular sarcophagus covered with a marble lid. Shaped with triangular pediments on both short sides, the lid usually had a gable form. The sarcophagus could contain one burial or a family sarcophagus could conserve multiple burials. However, those poor individuals not having sufficient financial sources for a sarcophagus could be buried incognito in some other individual’s sarcophagus. Relatives of the deceased were punished in the event of disclosure in such incidents. In order to prevent such occurrances, original grave owners engraved a maledicting inscription on the sarcophagus indicating that “those who bury without permission will be cursed by God” or that they would be fined. Located in the Vezneciler district of İstanbul and dating back to the Roman Imperial Period, a sarcophagus bears an inscription stating that “…whoever buries another body in this sarcophagus shall be liable to pay 2500 denarius to the city.”
Since the earliest settlement in Byzantium was in the area where Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace are situated, the city cemetery must have been outside this area. Nevertheless, as the city gradually grew and extended particulary into Eminönü and Fatih during the Roman Empire, the pre-Roman Imperial cemetery in the city had to lie under the extending residential area. Archeological studies demonstrate that the Byzantium cemetery started from Hagia Sophia and extended westward (towards Beyazıt) during the pre-Roman Imperial Period (namely Archaic, Classic and Hellenistic periods). As the city is surrounded by sea from the north, east and south, it does not appear possible that the city cemetery extended into these directions. Nonetheless, since there is a notable area extending towards Sirkeci-Eminönü, it can be said that several burials (as well as small-sized cemeteries) were performed in this area as well. The findings confirm this assertion. Undoubtedly, it should also be considered that an antique city cannot be only limited to an Acropolis and the city center (asty), but would cover rural areas (khora) and villages (komes), and that there might exist small-sized cemeteries dispersed to various locations within the territory (territorium) of Byzantium. Large amount of grave remains in present day Çemberlitaş, Beyazıt and Laleli districts strongly point to the fact that the Byzantium’s cemetery (necropolis) preceding the Roman Imperial Period was situated within this area. A large amount of Byzantium cemetery remains were unearthed during the foundation excavation of the Faculties of Science and Letters at İstanbul University between 1946-1952. However, these cemetery remains, despite their limited number, appear to extend from Beyazıt into Süleymaniye. I should emphasize at this point that the remains found (sarchophagi, steles, grave offerings) demonstrate that the cemetery at issue is not only limited to the Classic and Hellenistic Periods but also reflects upon cemeteries from the Roman Imperial Period, namely cemeteries dating from fourth century BC to third century AD. Moreover, there are several cemetery remains dating back to fourth century and fifth century BC within this area. Incontestably, the complicated state of these remains can be explained by the fact that extra burials were performed in certain graves over the course of time or that materials, such as sarcophagi and gravestones (steles), were transferred from different locations and reused. All the same, it can be said that several late Roman and Early Byzantine (IVth and VIth centuries) graves were found between Fındıkzade and Topkapı towards the West, and continue outside the fortification walls of Theodosius II, which fairly stands today.
It was understood that sarcophagi and steles belonging to the Byzantium cemetery were made from the marble brought from Marmara Island (Prokonnesos). Nezih Fıratlı, who prepared his doctoral thesis on Byzantine steles, conducted a study on 215 steles (and 9 sacrophagi) which was published in 1964. Fıratlı emphasizes in his study that most of the steles that had been dated IVth century BC to fifth century BC by modern historiography actually belong to the time period between second century BC and first century AD; a limited number of steles dating back to second century AD were gathered, and there was an increase in the number of gravestones dating back to third century AD. Byzantium cemetery gravestones were shaped as a rectangular stone block generally representing a building façade. The top parts particularly were likened to a building pediment (i.e. altar) and some parts included acroterium on the top and corners. The façades of the steles were engraved whereas the back and the sides were left unornamented. The depiction or scene as well as the inscription were situated on the front. According to Fıratlı, gravestones depicting “funeral banquets” constitute the largest group. The funeral banquet scene contains a male half-lying on the kline coupled by a female sitting opposite in a chair, a tiny banquet table and a servant or servants depicted in smaller sizes as house slave(s). Servants or butlers are represented in smaller size compared to other figures due to their social status. The last point that attracts the attention regarding Byzantium steles is that the male lying on the kline is seen holding a wreath in his extending right hand. Male or female figures standing or sitting in various numbers were frequently portrayed on gravestones apart from the funeral banquet composition. Nearly all males depicted as standing or sitting are dressed in a toga or tunic whereas females are dressed in a khiton and himation. Another notable point regarding the gravestones is that females bear covers on their heads for chastity and religious reasons. However, there exist no samples in which females are completely covered on their heads; only hair over their forehead is left in the open. Twosomes or threesomes are depicted in handshaking position. It is infallible that all figures, either male or female, depicted in these scenes represent the dead. In other words, steles portray the dead. On the other hand, it is probable in some cases that the stele was built beforehand or that one of the figures was still alive.
Apart from human figures, various objects are also depicted on the gravestones; these objects differ by gender, age and occupation of the deceased. To exemplify, females are accompanied with female-specific objects such as wool baskets, mirrors, combs, jewellery drawers, perfume bottles, and hand fans whilst males are shown with such objects as opened or closed books and notebooks, pencils, pencilcases and inkwells. If the male is a soldier or warrior, or such qualities pertaining to this person are desired to be highlighted, objects such as swords, spears, shields and helmets are depicted. Among motifs depicted in steles are: wreaths, palm branches, strigilis, kerykeion, torches, birds, dogs, a bunch of grapes and trees.
From the study conducted by Nezih Fıratlı and Louis Robert on the Byzantium steles, it is possible to acquire information regarding the name, father’s name, and occupation of the deceased. In addition, these gravestones might be said to illuminate the social structure of Byzantium. According to the gravestones, some of those who passed away in Byzantium and its surrounding are males: Damaphon, Menon, Thrason, Kephalion, Dionysios, Simos, Theuphanes, Matris, Apollas, Monimos, Eupalinos, Diogenes, Kallistratos, Theodotos, Meniskos, Metrodoros, Theophilos, Andronikos, Papas, Aretes, Zotikhos, Epaphroditos. Females: Kleo, Matro, Khoirina, Fila, Parmeniska, Ionia, Epiktetis, Stratonike, Aristoboula, Theoboula, Anaksila, Khema, Triphosa, Mammia, Kallo, Apphia, Lala, Tatis, Mousa, Eia.
Gravestones are occasionally engraved with the age of the deceased. For instance, it is understood that a male named Demetrios, a female, Theboula, a girl named Eia, and a boy named Epaphroditos passed away at the age of 80, 75, 13 and 4 respectively. Located in Beyazıt and dating back to third century AD, a family sarcophagus is inscribed with the following: “Dion’s son, Alexandros, lived for 65 years; his daughter, Alexandria, lived for 18 years; her baby, Alexandros, lived for 6 months.”
Inscriptions on the steles consist of specific formulated statements; however, not all of these might be inscribed on the same stone. Steles contain the following information: (a) name of the deceased (together with the father’s name); (b) name of the person who erected the gravestone; (c) life-span of the deceased; (d) a final word indicating “farewell” or “passing-away” at the end of the inscription.
In addition to the aforementioned gravestones, several steles dating back to the Roman Imperial period and belonging to some Roman legion soldiers were excavated during construction work in Beyazıt district. Soldiers engraved on the steles are depicted as standing, dressed in military uniforms and accompanied by their weapons. One of these gravestones was found in the garden of the British Consulate. Another rare stele was found during the excavation of St. Polyeuktos Church located in Saraçhane. Understood to belong to a gladiator, the façade of this stele is engraved with a gladiator which is depicted as moving right and accompanied by an inscription indicating his category. Due to the engravings, this particular stele must date back to the Roman Imperial Period.