To Bury or Burn
Romans could bury or burn their dead, practices known as inhumation (burial) and cremation (burning), but at certain times one practice was preferred over another, and family traditions might resist current fashions.
Cremation or Inhumation - Like Today, a Family Decision
In the last century of the Republic, cremation was more common. The Roman dictator Sulla was from the Cornelian gens [one way to tell the gens name is the -eia or -ia ending on the name], which had practiced inhumation until Sulla (or his survivors, contrary to his instructions) ordered that his own body be cremated lest it be desecrated in the way he had desecrated the body of his rival Marius. Followers of Pythagoras also practised inhumation.
Burial Becomes the Norm in Rome
Even into the 1st century A.D., the practice of cremation was the norm and burial and embalming were referred to as a foreign custom. By the time of Hadrian, this had changed and by the 4th century, Macrobius refers to cremation as a thing of the past, at least in Rome. The provinces were a different matter.
When a person died, he would be washed and laid out on a couch, dressed in his finest clothes and crowned, if he had earned one in life. A coin would be placed on his mouth, under the tongue, or on the eyes so he could pay the ferryman Charon to row him to the land of the dead. After being laid out for 8 days, he would be taken out for burial.
Death of the Poor
Funerals could be expensive, so poor but not indigent Romans, including slaves, contributed to a burial society which guaranteed proper burial in columbaria, which resembled dovecotes and allowed many to be buried together in a small space, rather than dumping in pits (puticuli) where their remains would rot.
In early years, the procession to the place of burial took place at night, although in later periods, only the poor were buried then. In an expensive procession there was a head of the procession called designator or dominus funeri with lictors, followed by musicians and mourning women. Other performers might follow and then came newly freed slaves (liberti). In front of the corpse, representatives of the ancestors of the deceased walked wearing wax masks (imago pl. imagines) in the likenesses of the ancestors. If the deceased had been particularly illustrious a funeral oration would be made during the procession in the forum in front of the rostra. This funeral oration or laudatio could be made for a man or woman.
If the body was to be burned it was put upon a funeral pyre and then when the flames rose, perfumes were thrown at the fire. Other objects that might be of use to the dead in the afterlife were also thrown in. When the pile burned down, wine was used to douse the embers, so that the ashes could be gathered and placed in funerary urns.
During the period of the Roman Empire, burial increased in popularity. The reasons for the switch from cremation to burial has been attributed to Christianity and mystery religions.
Burial Was Outside the City Limits
Almost everyone was buried beyond the limits of the city or pomoerium, which is thought to have been a disease-reducing practice from the early days when burial was more common than cremation. The Campus Martius, although an important part of Rome, was beyond the pomoerium during the Republic and for part of the Empire. It was, among other things, a place for burial of the illustrious at public expense. Private burial spots were along the roads leading into Rome, especially the Appian Way (Via Appia). Sepulchres might contain bones and ashes, and were monuments to the dead, often with formulaic inscriptions beginning with initials D.M. 'to the shades of the dead'. They could be for individuals or families. There were also columbaria, which were tombs with niches for the urns of ashes. During the Republic, mourners would wear dark colors, no ornaments, and would not cut their hair or beards. The period of mourning for men was a few days, but for women was a year for a husband or parent. The deceased's relatives made periodic visits to the tombs after the burial to offer gifts. The dead came to be worshiped as gods and were offered oblations.
Because these were considered sacred places, violation of a sepulchre was punishable by death, exile, or deportation to the mines.
Whether or not it was in connection with Christianity, cremation gave way to burial during the (www.ostia-antica.org/~isolsacr/burial.htm) reign of Hadrian in the Imperial period.
This information comes from a fascinating article, Funus, from:
William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.
"Cremation and Burial in the Roman Empire," by Arthur Darby Nock. The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1932), pp. 321-359.
"Regum Externorum Consuetudine: The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome," by Derek B. Counts. Classical Antiquity, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Oct., 1996), pp. 189-202.
See: "'Half-Burnt on an Emergency Pyre': Roman Cremations Which Went Wrong," by David Noy. Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Oct., 2000), pp. 186-196.