Archimimes: The Clown Funeral Impersonating the Dead

Archimimes The Clown Funeral Impersonating the Dead -
Impersonating the Dead


Funerals are (usually) a time of mourning and grief. A time for family and a time for friends. A time to reflect on the life and death of the loved one, but also to reflect on our own mortality. We are accustomed to seeing the darkness of it all, sobs and half whispers all around, careful not to disturb others at the wake.

But things were not always like that. Funeral customs are varied across cultures, and they have been changing for centuries. Mourners in Ancient Rome could be expected to be distracted from the gloomy proceedings by Archimimes, or Funeral Clowns.

Clown Funeral
Modern-day Clown Funeral

Archimimes: The Funeral Clowns of The Classical World

Perhaps one of the most interesting (or tragic, depending on how you view it) professions of the Ancient World was that of a Funeral Clown. Clowns at a funeral are rather strange by modern standards. However, during the 4th Century of the Classical Era of Greece and Rome, funeral clowns were extremely common.

Funeral Clowns were known as Archimimes (Archimimus in the original Latin). These types of performers were contracted to dress, masquerade, and imitate a deceased individual. The Archimimes would often wear the clothes of the deceased and wear a mask designed to look like the face of the departed.

Archimimes of the Classical World
Archimimes of the Classical World – Source: Chambers, Ephraim, 1680 (ca.)-1740 “Cyclopædia, or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences” (1728) 

As the funeral progressed, the Funeral Clown would run beside the corpse, or behind it, along with the other clowns, making jokes and imitating the deceased. It was also quite common throughout the funeral process to see clowns running all over the coffin dancing and making mean jokes, along with other clowns, in an effort to get the mourning relatives laughing.

Dancing on the Imperial Grave

Archimimes were very well regarded and the pay-out was extremely high. Meaning that it was mostly people in the higher classes of society, or at least those with a lot of money, that could afford them. Some Funeral Clowns were given the opportunity to dance at the tombs of emperors themselves.

Funeral Clown - Dancing on the Imperial Grave
Funeral Clown – Dancing on the Imperial Grave – Source: Sumi, Geoffrey S. “Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals.” The American Journal of Philology

According to Roman historians Appian of Alexandria and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Julius Caesar had Archimimes perform clown activities at their funerals.   

archimimes - Lucius M. Sargent - 19th Century historian
Archimimes – Lucius M. Sargent – The History of Dealing with the Dead

Funeral Clowns in the Modern World

Joseph Grimaldi, considered to be the father of modern European clowning, died in 1837. From 1946 onwards, clowns started gathering for the memorial service of Joseph Grimaldi at St James Church in London, where he was buried. From 1959 onwards, the event has been mostly held in Holy Trinity Church in Hackney, which is known as “the Clown’s Church.” This is an open event that the clowns attend in full costume and makeup.

Grimaldi as "Joey" the Clown
Grimaldi as “Joey” the Clown

In more recent times, funeral clown services are making a comeback throughout Europe and the USA. However, funeral services have diversified their services not just to clown funerals, but also thematic ones, such as Star Wars parades or Disney characters.

Star Wars themed funeral for 4-year-old boy who died from brain tumour, Denmead, Hampshire, Britain - 10 Apr 2014
Star Wars Funeral – Credit: Photo by Solent News/Shutterstock

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