Burial, II (Early Christian)

views updated


In the primitive Church, burial customs continued Jewish practices, as is attested by the Acts of the Apostles. As Christianity spread, however, the rites were adapted to local usages that were gradually modified by Christian belief in the Redemption, salvation, and eternal life. Christian burial stressed reverence for the body as the creation of God, the coinstrument of the soul that shared life in Christ and was destined for a glorious resurrection both personal and ecclesial. The most profound theology of burial is in Augustine's work On the Care of the Dead, while the most developed burial liturgy is found in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of pseudo-dionysius the areopagite.

Laying Out of the Body. Upon ascertainment of death, the eyes and mouth were closed. In pagan funerals this was the occasion for the conclamatio or violent outcries of mourning. Christians attempted to curb this practice by singing psalms. augustine mentions the chanting of Psalm 100, which speaks of God's mercy and judgment. After this came the washing of the body; this is attested to by the Acts of the Apostles in the case of the body of Dorcas. Tertullian witnesses to the continuation of this practice in his defense of the Christians: "When I die I can become stiff and pale as death after being washed." Egyptian Christians occasionally adopted embalming, a practice witnessed to by John cassian, St. Anthony, and St. Augustine, as well as by archeological remains that bear the chi-rho monogram or the Good Shepherd. Ordinarily, the body was anointed to preserve it before burial, a custom the pagans criticized as recorded in Minucius Felix: "You do not grace your body with perfumes, you reserve unguents for funerals." Frequent mention is made of myrrh and of Arabian and Sabean spices. This anointing is not to be confused with the anointing of the deceased during the church service, as described by Pseudo-Dionysius. This was a completion of the Baptismal anointing and signified that the deceased had waged a victorious struggle.

The clothing of the dead followed the anointing. The body was wrapped in linen, since the linen of burial, like that of Baptism, signified immortality. Then the body was clothed in the toga and the outer cloak or in the garments of the deceased's state in life, e.g., emperor or monk. Usually the outer garment was dark, violet being the usual color. Constant denunciations by Eastern and Western Fathers indicate that Christians also employed precious

apparel of silk or gold as burial robes and that they were berated for vain display and urged to concentrate on the garment of immortality, the resurrection. Sixth-century canonical legislation indicates that the body was wrapped in or covered with palls and cloths used for divine services. In pagan funerals, the deceased was crowned. Christianity at first rejected this custom because of its idolatrous association with the crowning of the gods; but it gradually was interpreted as presenting the crown of victory.

Wake. Whenever possible there was a wake before burial, held at times in the home of the deceased. When burial occurred on the same day as death, a three-day watch was often held at the grave. The wake for one who was buried the following day took the form of a night vigil, which at times was celebrated in the church and was an occasion for friends to condole the relatives and to pray for the deceased. This custom was greatly influenced by monastic practices. The body was surrounded with candles, symbolizing the lux perpetua to which the deceased was called, and priests read scriptural passages dealing with death, the resurrection, and life everlasting.

Procession. The Christian funeral procession was more a triumphal march. This applied to the simple burials of the early martyrs and to the more solemn funerals after the Peace of the Church. The body, covered with an outer covering, was carried on the funeral bed, with the head raised and exposed. The Acts of the Apostles mentions special young men deputed to carry the corpse. Later there were official lecticarii to perform this work. Frequently, relatives acted as pallbearers. For the funerals of outstanding persons, bishops and priests carried the body, and normally it was followed by the family and friends. In the more solemn funerals, acolytes led the procession, and deacons carrying torches escorted the corpse. In some cases the participants were arranged in such a way that the women marched with the nuns and the men with the monks. The main feature was the triumphal spirit, a feature that amazed the pagans. Pagan practicesinstrumental music, hired mourners, actors and buffoonswere excluded. The entire group joyfully sang Psalms, the reason for which is given by St. John Chrysostom: "Is it not that we praise God and thank Him that He has crowned the departed and freed him from suffering, and that God has the deceased, now freed from fear, with Himself?" The favorite Psalms were 22, 31, 100, 114, and 115.

Eucharistic Celebration. A distinctive feature of Christian burial was the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet. With the pagans, there was a sacrifice offered to the departed, and often a fish was used. Christianity had its own ΙΧΘϒΣ, Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice of Christ was offered for the deceased. The apocryphal Acts of John (c. a.d. 150180) mentions the celebration of the Eucharist at the grave on the 3d day. The casual manner in which this is mentioned indicates that it was the accepted practice to offer Mass at funerals. The Eucharist was celebrated at the grave or in the church. The Mass for constantine i and for St. monica was celebrated at the grave. St. Ambrose's Mass was that of Easter. St. Zeno of Verona and Pseudo-Dionysius speak of celebrating Mass in the church before the burial.

Interment. The funeral oration, if not previously delivered in the church, was spoken by a relative or friend at the grave. This was meant not only to eulogize the deceased, but to offer consolation drawn from Christian beliefs. Those of SS. Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose are the most famous. The relatives then approached the corpse to impart the final kiss, which was given also before leaving the house; but Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of the kiss as part of the liturgical service in the church. It indicated natural affection and the Christian belief in the sacredness of the body. This was a Christian practice, since contemporary religions considered contact with a corpse as a ritual defilement. The body, after being wrapped in linen, was placed in the grave in a lying position. The hands were extended alongside the body or folded across the chest. The body was buried facing the east, awaiting the parousia, the second coming of Christ in glory.

From the beginning Christians practiced earth burial and not cremation. In so doing, they imitated the burial of Christ and followed the Jewish practice. Originally, there was no intrinsic link between earth burial and resurrection. However, St. Paul speaks of the body being sown in corruption and rising in incorruption. Hostile pagans regarded the Christian earth burial as linked with the resurrection and often prevented burial by burning the bodies of Christians or exposing them to vultures. Through earth burial, Christianity and the resurrection became interchangeable concepts. The Christians frequently affirmed that no human intervention could thwart the divine work of the resurrection. Otherwise, Christians professed indifference to being buried or not. This was a radical change, for in contemporary non-Christian religions the proper carrying out of the funeral was regarded as vital for the repose of the soul in the land of the dead, lest the deceased become a restless and vengeful ghost. Before leaving the cemetery the participants pronounced the last farewell. The pagan departure ceremony was vale, a final farewell; that of the Christians was vivas, a prayer that the departed might live in God and intercede for the living.

Visits to the grave were frequent, and the special days for commemorating the dead were the 3d, 7th or 9th, 30th or 40th, and the anniversary. After the paschal mystery celebrated in the Eucharist, the first liturgical feasts of the saints evolved from these anniversary celebrations, which were considered prolongations of the paschal mystery, life and death in Christ being unique because of the Resurrection. In the words of St. Augustine, "it is this belief alone that distinguishes and separates Christians from all other men."

Bibliography: a. c. rush, Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington 1941), bibliog. Centre de pastorale liturgique, Le Mystère de la mort et sa célébration (Lex orandi 12; Paris 1956). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 190753) 5.2:270515; 15.1:126672. j. kollwitz, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser ]Stuttgart 1941 (1950)[ 2:208219.

[a. c. rush]