A funeral oration or epitaphios logos (Greek: ἐπιτάφιος λόγος) is a formal speech delivered on the ceremonial occasion of a funeral. Funerary customs comprise the practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from the funeral itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honour. In ancient Greece and, in particular, in ancient Athens, the funeral oration was deemed an indispensable component of the funeral ritual.
The epitaphios logos is regarded as an almost exclusive Athenian creation, although some early elements of such speeches exist in the epos of Homer and in the lyric poems of Pindar. "Pericles' Funeral Oration" is the earlier extant of the genre. The Athenians are those who set the standard and, therefore, Demosthenes praises them, saying that "you alone of all mankind publicly pronounce over your dead funeral orations, in which you extol the deeds of the brave".
In Homer very few elements of epitaphios logos or laudation are found. At the funeral of Patroclus chief in all the mourning is Achilles; the son of Peleus laid his bloodstained hand on the breast of his friend and cried, "Fare well Patroklos, even in the house of Hades. I will now do all that I erewhile promised you; I will drag Hector hither and let dogs devour him raw; twelve noble sons of Trojans will I also slay before your pyre to avenge you." As he spoke he treated the body of Hector with contumely, laying it at full length in the dust beside the bier of Patroklos. At the funeral of Hector the women, Andromache, his mother and Helen, deliver the final public statements over the dead body. Andromache laments the loss of her husband with these emotional words:
Woe is me, O Hector; woe, indeed, that to share a common lot we were born, you at Troy in the house of Priam, and I at Thebes under the wooded mountain of Plakos in the house of Eetion who brought me up when I was a child – ill-starred sire of an ill-starred daughter – would that he had never begotten me. You are now going into the house of Hades under the secret places of the earth, and you leave me a sorrowing widow in your house. The child, of whom you and I are the unhappy parents, is as yet a mere infant. Now that you are gone, O Hector, you can do nothing for him nor he for you.
In the Sixth Olympian For Hagesias of Syracuse, the poet mentions a characteristic example of an epitaph high praise:
Hagesias, that praise is ready for you, which once Adrastus' tongue rightly spoke for the seer Amphiaraus, son of Oicles, when the earth swallowed up him and his shining horses. In Thebes, when the seven pyres of corpses had been consumed, the son of Talaus spoke in this way: "I long for the eye of my army, a man who was good both as a prophet and at fighting with the spear."
Nicole Loraux observes that the epitaphios was "born of lyric poetry and in competition with it", since the funeral oratory "uses poetic themes but reinterprets them from a resolutely political perspective".
The orator Anaximenes of Lampsacus claimed that the funeral oration had been originated in the 6th-century BC in Athens by Solon, but this is widely doubted by historians. More plausible, but not beyond doubt, is the statement by Dionysius of Halicarnassus that the Athenians instituted the funeral oration "in honour or those who fought at Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, and died for their country, or to the glory of their exploits at Marathon."
Thucydides describes in detail the funeral rituals and points out that "the dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the most beautiful suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried". This suburb was Kerameikos, where there was a monument for all the Athenians fell in battle, except such of them as fought at Marathon.
Historians now believe that the demosion sema (a collective burial site for the war dead) and the epitaphios logos were first established around 470 BC, customs that continued during the Periclean period. The earliest preserved casualty list, giving the names of those who died fighting for their city in a given year, dates to 490–480 BC and it is associated with the battle of Marathon, and white-ground lekythoi depicting funerary scenes started around 470 BC. "Pericles' Funeral Oration", as reported by Thucydides, is the earliest epitaphios presented in full. The burial of the war dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War is regarded as reflecting the fifth-century dominance of the public co-memorial.
Though Plato is consistently suspicious of the ability of oratory to teach, in the Menexenus he demonstrates a theoretical interest in the project of funeral oratory. He actually describes the scheme of the traditional Athenian funeral oration with the following succinct phrase:
And the speech required is one which will adequately eulogize the dead and give kindly exhortation to the living, appealing to their children and their brethren to copy the virtues of these heroes, and to their fathers and mothers and any still surviving ancestors offering consolation.
Thereby, the traditional epitaphios must contain: a eulogy of the war dead and the city, an exhortation to the relatives to copy the virtues of the war dead and a consolation for the living members of their families.
Therefore, the epitaphios consists of the following parts:
The primary function of the funeral oration was to give public expression to the conception of the potential excellence of polis. It was an occasion on which Athens "invented" and "reinvented" itself in narrative form. The city displayed its achievements, as well as the civic and personal virtues to which the citizens could aspire. The secular prose of the funeral oration dedicates itself to celebrating the ideal of the democratic Athenian city. Through the epitaphios, a civic discourse, the city recognizes itself as it wishes to be.
It is for this reason that Plato has chosen the funeral oration as a main target of him. In Menexenus he engages the concerns of funeral oratory and appropriates for philosophy part of the intellectual mission that the Athenians associated with the most celebrated and democratic form of epideictic, the funeral oratory.
Whereas the epitaphios originated itself as a public speech composed for a specific occasion, a number of specimens of this genre were not composed for delivery at the public burial. They would have been read to small audiences at the intellectual gatherings that met at so many venues. Gorgias' funeral oration, maybe that of Lysias and clearly Plato's parodic epitaphios in Menexenus were not designed to be delivered before the Athenian people.