In the ancient Church burying the dead was reckoned a charitable work akin to tending the sick or feeding the hungry. It was a practical act of love, especially when the one buried was a stranger or an enemy.
When the pestilence raged in Carthage at the time of the persecution under Gallus, the heathen threw out their dead for fear of the contagion, and cursed the Christians as the supposed authors of the plague. But Cyprian assembled his congregation, and exhorted them to love their enemies. Whereupon all went to work, the rich with their money, the poor with their hands, and rested not until the dead were buried, the sick cared for, and the city saved from desolation.1
In fact, “Julian the Apostate traced the rapid spread and power of Christianity to three causes: benevolence, care of the dead, and honesty.”2
Originally, the Church’s funeral ceremonies were simple.
Following the Jewish custom, the Christians washed the bodies of the dead, wrapped them in linen cloths, sometimes em-balmed them, and then, in the presence of ministers, relatives and friends, with prayer and the singing of psalms, committed their deceased bodies as seeds of the Resurrection bodies to the bosom of the earth. . . . The corpses were wound in wrappings, without coffin, and the openings were closed with tiles of brick or marble.3
In fact, “apart from their rejection on principle of the burning of the corpse,” the early Christians observed the customs of their country age, as long as they didn’t involve idolatry, magic, or other perversions.4 Love of clan and tradition endured now bolstered by the hope of the Resurrection.
Augustine put all burial rites in proper perspective: “Wherefore all these last offices and ceremonies that concern the dead, the careful funeral arrangements, and the equipment of the tomb, and the pomp of obsequies, are rather the solace of the living than the comfort of the dead.”5 After all, the dead are dead. “Nevertheless,” he wrote, “the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works.”
The Roman Catacombs
When we think of the early Christians in connection with tombs, we generally think of the Roman catacombs. The earliest catacombs probably had their beginnings as family sepulchers. Wealthy believers would make room in their own sepulchers for the burial of the martyrs and the poor. Christians soon formed burial associations. The Roman authorities showed great tolerance toward such associations. There is no evidence that Rome ever interfered with Christian burials or the Christian dead.
The catacombs, then, were the work of the local church. They weren’t built as places of refuge, but as an elaborate labyrinthine graveyard. They served as places of worship and refuge only in emergencies.
The Christian catacombs were for the whole family of believers. “The ties of life were to continue after death. The poor and the rich should be together in death, as they had worshipped and suffered side by side in life.”6
The Roman catacombs are long and narrow passages or galleries and cross-galleries excavated in the bowels of the earth in the hills outside and around the city, for the burial of the dead. They are dark and gloomy, with only an occasional ray of light from above. The galleries have two or more stories, all filled with tombs, and form an intricate network or subterranean labyrinth. Small compartments (loculi) were cut out like shelves in the perpendicular walls for the reception of the dead, and rectangular chambers (cubicula) for families, or distinguished martyrs. They were closed with a slab of marble or tile. The more wealthy were laid in sarcophagi. The ceiling is flat, sometimes slightly arched.7
The Roman catacombs were large enough to contain nearly four million bodies. “To save space, the galleries were sometimes stacked one on top of another; in some cases, there are as many as five stories in a catacomb.8
The catacombs were beautifully adorned, mostly by amateur artists, with “carvings of flowers and fruit, wreaths of vines and grapes, and all sorts of forms of plant and animals” including gazelles, goats, panthers, and dolphins.9 Then there were the gospel symbols: the anchor, the ship, the crown, the dove, the olive-branch, the Good Shepherd, the lamb, and the phoenix as a sign of resurrection. The cross occurs infrequently and often in disguised form. The fish is common. Its Greek name ichthys (ἰχθύς) is an acrostic that stands for the words “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” On the other hand, “The crucifixion of Christ nowhere appears among the pictures of the first three centuries.”10 Yet the tomb paintings reflect a thorough knowledge of both Testaments.
The word-pictures of the Old Testament are everywhere reproduced in rude-frescoes. Noah in the ark, the offering of Isaac, Moses taking off his shoes, the translation of Elijah, Daniel in the lions’ den, and the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, were favorite topics, as bearing on the tribulations of the Church of the time.11
The New Testament furnished themes of hope and renewal: the ever-growing vine and the sower and the seed, for example.
Christian family and friends left trinkets and remembrances in the tombs of their loved ones: “rings, armlets and necklets, clasps, gems, combs and hair-pins and ear-rings,”12 and at children’s graves “dolls, little figures of terra cotta, bronze or glass savings-boxes, little bells, small lamps, many-coloured stones and counters.”13
The tombs bore many sorts of inscriptions, but “In Pace” was the most common. Rest and triumph were the predominant themes. “The dead were, at last, at peace. The grave was surrounded with images of beauty, peace, and joy.”14 There were no symbols or images of martyrdom until the persecutions were long past. There were no prayers for the dead or any traces of Mariolatry.
When Constantine ended the persecutions and Christianity became a legal, even a favored religion, Christians created cemeteries “located above ground, especially above the catacombs, and around the basilicas; or on other land purchased or donated for the purpose.”15
Burials in catacombs ended in the middle of the 5th century. In the centuries that followed the catacombs fell into neglect, suffered the ravages of barbarian raiders and grave robbers, and were finally forgotten.16
The Creation of Cemeteries
As Christianity spread through the Empire and beyond, new converts usually continued to bury their loved ones in the burial plots of their fathers. And that meant outside their cities, for in the pagan world, the dead were always buried in the fields outside the city walls; it wasn’t lawful to bury the dead within the city.
In 752, however, St. Cuthbert of Northumbria received permission from the Pope to have churchyards added to the church as places suitable for the burial of the dead. In this he was likely imitating the practice of the monastic orders, whose members buried their dead within the precincts of their own community as a matter of community between the living and the dead. This new practice spread rapidly, and within a century it became a matter of custom everywhere.17 The churches became the caretakers of the dead.
Cemeteries and churchyards were under the immediate control of the Church, and the clergy were largely dependent upon the fees charged for interment, in return for which they exercised a general control, and took the responsibility of seeing that burials were conducted with reverence and decency, and that the bodies left in their charge remained inviolate. More than this, it was their duty to satisfy themselves that the body brought for burial was not the victim of foul play, no light responsibility in days when the guilt of blood was deemed of small consequence.18
But the idea of holy ground, so dear to paganism, was revived in the rite of consecrating the burial ground within the churchyard.19 Consecration re-quired definite boundaries, and these were often marked by strong walls and hedges that isolated the holy ground from the secular world beyond. The church placed great care into maintaining the holy ground.20
By the mid-14th century, William of Edyndon, the bishop of Winchester, could write as a matter of course “that the Catholic Church believes in the resurrection of the body of the dead. Sanctified by the reception of the Sacraments, it is consequently not buried in pagan places, but in specially consecrated cemeteries, or in churches, where with due reverence they are kept like the relics of the Saints, till the day of resurrection.”
Burial Customs in England
We will take England for the specifics, though the customs throughout Christendom didn’t vary greatly. Here the Christian dead were buried with their faces towards the East, a testimony to the Final Judgment, for the Church believed that Jesus, like the lightning in His simile, would come from that direction (Matt. 24:27).21 Those who died in the Lord were normally buried towards the south, east, and west of the church building, and the graves with their markers were packed as closely as space would allow. But there were no gravestones to the north. Additions to the original building were normally made only on this side because there were no markers in the way.
Why is this? If you look carefully on the north side, you may solve the problem, for one or two stone labels overgrown with rank grass and moss may have escaped your notice, and the village gossip will gladly tell you who lies buried there, isolated from the rest of the little community, a half-forgotten tale of blood and crime or maybe of suicide. Here, then, they bury their outcasts, the murderer on the north, his victim in a place of honour, east, west or south.22
Christian burial was denied suicides in all parts of England under the canon law but with certain exceptions—as the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet suggests. The first was performed by the gravedigger, and the grave was “out of the sanctuary” and not “straight,” (oriented east and west); the second by the priest in the parish churchyard when the coroner ruled the victim insane; and the third by the coroner directly though for the same reason. But any suicide the coroner judged voluntary received a profane burial at a crossroads. There the corpse would be staked to the ground through the heart, sometimes decapitated, and then covered with stones. Passing strangers could throw stones at the grave to add to its desecration.23
The Medieval Service in England
Guernsey describes the Medieval service as it was generally observed through the reign of Elizabeth:
The priests and clerks in their robes meet the funeral cortege at the entrance of the churchyard, forewarning of which is given by the church bell, and they lead the procession in the following order: The cross-bearer at the head of the corpse, the officiating priest at the feet, the person carrying the holy water a little behind the officiating priest at his right hand, and the other persons who sing are arranged on each side in the order of their church rank, so as to leave room for the officiating priest in the middle. The four or six torches of wax are lighted and given to those who are appointed to carry them. The priest going before the corpse, all followed by the relatives and friends of deceased carrying sprigs of rosemary. In this manner they proceed to the grave, singing psalms and hymns. When they arrive at the grave the bearers lay the coffin on the brink of the grave with its feet turned towards the east. . . . The priest then standing before the cross with his face turned towards the body he sprinkles the corpse (or coffin) thrice with holy water without saying anything, and then blesses it by a prayer, then an anthem or psalm is sung, after which he again sprinkles and incenses the body, and also the grave, then the friends of deceased (if the coffin is open) are allowed to look for the last time upon deceased. When the corpse is being made ready to be laid into the earth and the coffin is lowered into the grave a dirge and anthem is sung. Then the holy Eucharist is administered. Then after again sprinkling the coffin with holy water and a handful of earth is cast upon the coffin by the priest in the form of a cross, he saying the prescribed prayer, and then sprinkling it with holy water, an anthem is chanted, and then a prayer said; then the relatives and friends of the deceased come before the earth is thrown into the grave and sprinkle it with holy water supplied by the priest, and such other emblems as custom allows. They all stay until the grave has been filled up, the company condole with the relatives of the deceased, and then the bell rings, all return to the church, where a requiem mass was (formerly) sung and a funeral sermon preached.24
The graveside ceremonies took several hours.
The celebration of the Eucharist at the grave at burials was common in the Church as early as the 4th century and was the practice in England up to the time of Edward VI. The first prayer book required it. The second didn’t. Elizabeth preferred it. But the prayer book finally adopted by Parliament merely left it as an option. After Elizabeth it gradually fell into disuse.25
The Reformers, when they had time to attend to the matter, tried to sweep away anything connected with the funeral service that smacked of superstition or popery. But they continued to insist that burial was an obligation and Christian burial a privilege and act of faith. So Calvin writes with regard to Abraham’s burial of Sarah (Gen. 23:3):
How religiously this has been observed in all ages, and among all people, is well known. Ceremonies have indeed been different, and men have endeavored to outdo each other in various superstitions; meanwhile, to bury the dead has been common to all. And this practice has not arisen either from foolish curiosity, or from the desire of fruitless consolation, or from superstition, but from the natural sense with which God has imbued the minds of men; a sense he has never suffered to perish, in order that men might be witnesses to themselves of a future life. . . . yet it cannot be denied that religion carries along with it the care of burial. And certainly (as I have said) it has been divinely engraven on the minds of all people, from the beginning, that they should bury the dead; whence also they have ever regarded sepulchres as sacred.
Like Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, like the Apostles’ Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q 41) treats the historical fact of Christ’s burial an essential element of the gospel. For in His burial Christ drank the last dregs of our curse. And so Ursinus, in his lectures on the Catechism, says of Christ:
He would be buried that we might not be terrified in view of the grave, but might know that he has sanctified our graves by his own burial, so that they are no longer graves to us, but chambers and resting places in which we may quietly and peacefully repose until we are again raised to life.26
He was buried that it might be apparent . . . that his resurrection was no apparition or imaginary thing, but was a real resuscitation of a corpse reanimated.27
And, finally, Christ was buried so that “we may be confirmed in the hope of the resurrection, as we, after his example, shall also be buried, and shall be raised again by his power; knowing that Christ, our head, has opened up the way for us from the grave to glory.”28
Not long afterwards the Puritan John Trapp echoed Ursinus’s lectures in his own commentary:
Buried our Saviour was. 1. That none might doubt of his death. 2. That our sins might be buried with him. 3. That our graves might be prepared and perfumed for us, as so many beds of roses, or delicious dormitories, Isa. 57:2.29
John Flavel said much the same thing: “When he was buried, he was buried for us; for the End of it was, to perfume our Graves, against we come lie down in them.”30
Three hundred years later Thelemann in his commentary on the Heidelberg echoed the same sentiment: “The comfort that His burial takes away the fear of the grave and sanctifies our rest in the tomb.”31 But Thelemann, like the Reformers before him, was opposed to superstitious rites. He quotes the constitution of the Church of the Palatinate (1563) to buttress his point:
The constitution of the Church of the Palatinate of 1563 contained this paragraph: “At burials all popish and superstitious ceremonies are to be avoided. We are, however, to commit our dead to the earth with honor, as it is becoming, with such services as may be of profit to the living. In funeral discourses and addresses at the grave the minister shall abstain from excessive praise. The sermons or exhortations shall be chiefly directed to the instruction of those who attend the burial, that they may learn how to live a Christian life and die happy.”32
Among the ceremonies Thelemann rejected was the consecration of graveyards.
Because the grave has been hallowed for the believing Christian, by Christ’s rest therein, the dedication of Christian cemeteries is a superfluous ceremony. The only act of dedication that can properly take place is the ceremony connected with the first internment.33
In the Years That Followed
In 1566 the Assembly of Scotland prohibited burials within the church and threatened those who ignored the edict with severe sanctions. But the burials continued, with families of rank, “who demanded to be buried apart from the common herd.”34 Scottish Congregationalists, on the other hand, denounced the old hallowed grounds as vestiges of popery. “Why mar the landscape with these grim spots,” they reasoned, “when you could just as soon use your own field?”35 And so they buried their dead on their farms in family plots.
Inscriptions on headstones changed as well. No longer did they appeal for the prayers or even the mercy of Jesus. Instead they became testimonies to the saintly virtues of the dead. “. . . [I]t is little wonder that the infant, taken for the first time to the cemetery, wanted to know “where the bad people were buried.”36
Eventually, city officials began campaigns to rid their cities of cemeteries altogether. “During the 1780s, most of the dead of Paris were exhumed and moved into a new system of catacombs.”37 By the middle of the next century London passed a law that “closed the churchyards and put heavy restrictions on burial within the city limits, and most cities and towns across Great Britain soon followed its lead.”38 In 1914 San Francisco decided that “its rundown cemeteries were a magnet for disease and delinquency: it closed them down. More and more, people began looking beyond the city limits as they had in ancient times.”39
Modern Cemeteries and Memorial Parks
Before 1831, cemeteries as we know them didn’t exist in the United States. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the first.40 Then came Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836) and Green-Wood in Brooklyn (1838).41 The growing secularism of the age that encouraged churches to yield up their hospitals, orphanages, and schools and the influence of Romanticism that gave death a fashionable twist played into the transformation of where and why Americans buried their dead.
Beyond that, the old churchyards seemed crowded and expensive to maintain, and they were reckoned sources of epidemic disease. Very small plots of ground were filled with thousands of coffins buried on top of each other, five or six deep. During floods, the walls could break down and spill decayed bodies into the streets. Meanwhile, the cities were filling up and expanding, and real estate prices were rising. “By moving the dead out of the city center to places like Brooklyn and Cambridge, these rural cemeteries allowed for much larger burial grounds that also removed the dead from the immediate realm of the living.”42
After 1830 cemeteries were increasingly built for the living. With quiet, winding roads and beautiful vistas, all set apart from the hustle and bustle of life, cemeteries became places to meditate, to reach out to the other world, to remember the past. And in the general absence of public parks and gardens, these cemeteries also served as open spaces for picnics and play. “These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted.”43 The idea of the burying the whole body of believers together was effectively dead. By the 1870s, the age of non-theistic materialism was in full swing, and the Christian emphasis on the importance of the body itself began to fade. Even the door to the crematorium began to swing slowly open, but that is another story.
1 William Childs Robinson, “The Grave Is Sanctified by Christ’s Rest in the Tomb,” The Southern Presbyterian Journal, 11.10 (9 July 1952): 6-6.
2 William Childs Robinson, “Your Bodies Are Temples of the Holy Ghost: Another Word against Cremation,” The Southern Presbyterian Journal, 11.13 (30 July 1952): 4-5.
3 Robinson, “The Grave Is Sanctified.”
4 Wilhelm Möller, History of the Christian Church, A. D. 1-600, tr. Andrew Rutherford (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1982), 281.
5 The City of God, 1:12.
6 John Fletcher Hurst, History of the Christian Church (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1897), 87.
7 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1910), ch VII.
8 Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988 ), 308.
9 Möller, 283.
10 Sheldon, 309-310.
11 Hurst, 87-88.
12 Möller, 281.
13 Ibid., 282.
14 Hurst, 88.
16 Sheldon, 308.
17 Bertram S. Puckle, Funeral Customs, Their Origin and Development (London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd., 1926), ch. VIII.
23 Rocellus Sheridan Guernsey, Papers of the N. Y. Shakespeare Society, No. 1, “Ecclesiastical Law in Hamlet: The Burial of Ophelia” (New York: Brentano Bros., 1885), 8.
24 Guernsey, 31.
25 Ibid., 35.
26 Zacharias Ursinsus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, ), 225. The phrase Ursinus uses here, “he has sanctified our graves by his own burial,” appears three hundred years later in the RCUS Order of Christian Worship (1859) as, “by His rest in the tomb hast sanctified the graves of the saints.” Similar wording appears in Presbyterian and Lutheran liturgies as well.
29 John Trapp, A Commentary or Exposition upon All the Books of the New Testament (London: R. W., 1656), 334.
30 John Flavel, Whole Works (London: D. Midwinter, et al.,1740), 99.
31 Otto Thelemann, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Douma Publications, 1959),161.
32 Thelemann, 164.
33 Thelemann, 163. The 1859 Order of Worship for the RCUS included just such a ceremony. It included a prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Reign, thou Spirit of Peace, over this consecrated spot.” The influence of Mercersburg theology was at work here.
35 Joel Gazis-Sax, “A Brief History of Cemeteries,” <http://www.alsirat.com/silence/history.html>.
38 Melissa Snell, “The Bad Old Days: The Dead,” About.com (2015) <http://historymedren.about.com/od/dailylifesociety/a/bod_dead.htm>.
40 Rebecca Greenfield, “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries,” The Atlantic, March 16, 2011 <http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/>.
43 That “door to cremation” in Christian England was opened by an eccentric Welsh neo-Druid who wanted to cremate his dead son Iesu Crist (yes, Jesus Christ). For the introduction to cremation in the U.S., see “How the Occult Brought Cremation to America” in this issue.