One of the most well-known and documented examples of cremation in ancient times is the cremation of the companion of Achilles – Patroclus. Achilles took Patroclus at a young age as his squire and best friend. Their companionship is legendary and has been the subject of many debates and discussions, and likewise many love stories. The two were dispatched to Troy to defend the honor of Helen, and both would later be killed in battle.
During the Trojan war, Achilles became frustrated with the lack of respect he was receiving from his peers, so he refused to fight. His fellow Grecians became forlorn and the battle was decidedly going to be lost to Troy. To renew the spirit of the Grecian Army, Patroclus volunteered to disguise himself as Achilles to chase the Trojans from the Greek camp, and thus encourage the Grecian soldiers to fight. Patroclus became overzealous and was killed by the spear of Hector, the great general of the Trojan army.
Achilles was enraged and stricken with grief. He mourned for 12 days the death of his beloved partner and refused to allow his body to be disposed of – until Patroclus visited him in a dream – begging him to dispose of his body by fire so that his spirit could be freed and he could enter the underworld.
Achilles assented immediately and Homer gives us this description of the cremation pyre in his Iliad:
“The Myrmidons stayed and built up huge piles of wood and made a pyre of a hundred feet on each side, and with grief in their hearts they placed the body upon it. In front of the pyre, they slaughtered, skinned and dressed many plump sheep and lumbering bulls. And Achilles took the fat from them all and covered Patroclus head to foot and heaped the bodies around him, then put some jars of honey and oil there leaning against the funeral bed, and with groans he slaughtered four horses and threw them onto the pyre. Patroclus had nine pet dogs that he fed at his table, and Achilles took two of them, killed them, and threw their bodies onto the pyre. And with butchery in his heart, he ordered his men to bring the dozen young Trojan [prisoners], and after he killed them, one after the other, he threw them onto the pyre. To this he applied the fire and lit the wood so that the flames would spread and consume it all."
Later, Achilles charges the Myrmidons to gather the remains of Patroclus and place them in a golden, two handled urn given by Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis. Achilles also tells his comrades to place his remains into the same urn upon his death – honoring Patroclus’ wish that they may be one in death as they were in life.
This example has set the stage for many of the remembrances we offer our families today.