Christians and their Dead Cont.

By Dr. Jeremiah Mutie, PhD | A Five Part Series on Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures

This is the fifth installment of a five part series. You can view the previous installments part 1part 2part 3 and part 4 here.
There are enough reasons to conclude that Christians made this change in accordance to their theological convictions concerning death. Although space does not allow us to explore the views of the earliest Christian Fathers concerning the theological basis behind their disposal of the dead, a few can be mentioned. For example, through the use of such metaphors as “semen” and “seed,” both Justin Martyr and Athenagoras stressed the need for preserving the body for the purpose of the resurrection (it helps to remember that they conceived the resurrection as bodily and physical).[1] As well, many modern scholars have reached the same conclusion: this was a theologically-based change. Again, although space does not allow for a full exploration of these, a few examples are in order.
[1] See, for example, Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 18–21, 51–52 and Athenagoras, The Resurrection of the Dead (De ressurectionae), 25.
In his exploration of the issue in early 60s, Daniel-Rops, after stating that this change most probably took place during the reign of Emperor Trajan (d. 117), explained his reasoning this way:
Why did the Christians adopt this custom rather than that which was far more common—and more economical—at Rome, namely, that of cremating corpses, of placing the ashes in urns, and of setting the urns out in columbaria, “pigeonries”? Possibly because inhumation seemed more respectful treatment for a body destined to be resurrected. Perhaps to conform to the custom which had been followed in the burial of Jesus. Or the explanation may be simpler: because according to biblical tradition which the Christians observed, there was never any question of cremating the dead[1]
In the same manner, Alice Mulhern, comments, “The Christians, it should be noted, had chosen inhumation, rather than cremation, a choice which perhaps related to the Christian belief that the soul and body would be reunited at the time of the final judgment.”[2] Finally, in a very candid manner, Douglas Davies argued that this insistence of inhumation as the only method for the disposal of the dead by Christians, was based on their understanding of the life of Christ—his death, burial and resurrection. He writes, “The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was symbolically consonant with death and burial of later generations of Christians.”[3] In addition, “Christians saw inhumation as consistent with the underlying motif of the Garden of Eden whereby God forms the first man from the “pre-moistened ‘dust of the ground’ into which the ‘breath of life’ is given and to which he is fated to return after disobeying the divine command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”[4] Therefore, although there are some scholars, like Arthur Nock, who still insist that religion had nothing to do with this change, there seems to be overwhelming evidence to suggest that, indeed, this change had everything to do with belief.[5]
When it came to the actual funeral and burial ceremonies, Christians showed no differences according to social status or economic class of the departed. Rather, Christians considered it their duty to provide a burial for each Christian irrespective of their social status. In one of the earliest Christian apologies, Aristides argues that the virtue of burying their poor dead, put Christians in a higher moral ground than the Jews. He writes, “but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them sees him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of the Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him.”[6] Indeed, this actions of caring for the dead indiscriminately, argues Rebillard, differentiated Christians from pagans. And, in time of plagues, the burial of all the dead by Christians, was credited with halting its spread.[7]
In contrast to the Greeks and the Romans, Christians held their burial processions during the day. “After holding a public procession carrying the body on a bier, they buried it, as noted above, during a service punctuated by the recital of psalms and celebration of the Eucharist.”[8] Although information concerning what happened at the graveside is scanty, helpful reconstruction is possible. An example is the apocryphal Acts of John where we have the recorded burial of the wife of Andronicus of Ephesus, Drusiana, believed to have been conducted by the apostle John. “The text reports that John and Andronicus, together with the other brethren ‘went back at the break of the day to the tomb in which Drusiana had been for three days’ so that they may break bread there.”[9] Therefore, as Coleman observes, “By this rite, it was intimated that the communion of saints was still perpetuated between the living and the dead.”[10]  In other words, “It was a favorite idea that both [the living and the dead] still continued [to be] members of the same mystical body one and the same on earth and in heaven.”[11] And, because they did not see death as afflictive, Christians “severely reproved the Jewish and Roman custom of hiring women to make lamentations, discarding the Jewish badges of morning in the form of sackcloth and ashes.”[12] As far as the places of burial are concerned, Christians originally buried their dead in the Roman designated burial places outside the city. However, they eventually began to bury them inside the city. As McCane notes, in contrast to the Jews, who saw dead bodies as pollutants, Christians, “Explicitly denying the impurity of the human corpse…begun to treat the dead bodies, or parts thereof, in ways that had previously been regarded as inappropriate.”[13] He adds, “In particular, Christians consciously violated the social spaces and locations that had formerly off-limits. Christian dead were brought into the center of public space and given a prominent role in public worship.”[14] Thus, “it seems like what we see here is the carrying out to the fullest implications the changed view of death on the part of early Christians whereby death is no longer viewed as ‘afflictive but a joyful event’ in light of the Christian hope of the resurrection.”[15] This resulted in what we now know as the “Christian catacombs,” which were “gigantic, fantastically large cemeteries in which generations of Christians interred their dead, could now be located inside cities instead of outside them,”[16] which could be located inside the cities. Therefore, “The result of this ‘Christianization of death,’ was the emergence of Christian burial places inside the city, which, by the fourth century, were ‘styled κοιμητήρια, places of repose, cemeteries, denoting hereby, not only that the dead rest from their earthly labors and sorrows, but pointing out the hope of future resurrection.’” Indeed, at this point, not only were Christians buried inside the city, but also in church compounds. As Webb observes, the material remains of such key early church Fathers as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, are interred under the high altar of the upper church of San Clemente in Rome.[17]
Finally, as far the post-funerary commemorations are concerned, Christians during this time, scholars argue that believers, taking their cue from the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, would visit the graves of believers annually. After he was burnt at stake, Christians “are reported to have taken the bones of Polycarp, τὰ τιμιώτερα λίθων πολυτελῶν καὶ δοκιμώτερα ὑπὲρ χρυσίον ὀστᾶ αὐτοῦ ἀπεθέμεθα  (“which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold”) and deposited them in a suitable place.”[18] They would come here to celebrate Polycarp’s “birthday” since, according to early believers, a person’s actual birthday was his death day, the day he/she was born into heaven.[19] These were public events, events for the entire Christian community and not just for the family members of the departed.[20] However, contrary to the opinion of some, these visits did not constitute what later came to be known as the “Christian cult of the dead.” This is a later development, historically-speaking.[21]

3.0. Conclusion

            The focus of this article has been the attitudes toward death in late antiquity particularly in Greco-Roman and early Christian cultures. It has been argued that these attitudes can be fully perceived from the practices accorded to the dead during the process of dying, funerary and burial ceremonies as well as the post-funerary celebrations at the graveside. As it has been demonstrated, evidence indicates that although there were similarities between Greco-Roman and Christian practices when it came to the treatment of the dead, while practices by the former tended to emphasize the fear and hopelessness towards death, practices by the former suggested hope and joyful anticipation of the promised resurrection at the eschaton. This was because of their beliefs based on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of their founder, Jesus of Nazareth. As Jeroslav Pelikan comments, “A theology whose central message is the biography of a crucified Jew cannot avoid speaking about death, whether it be his or ours.”[22] Finally, it has also been demonstrated that it is anachronistic to argue that there was a full-blown Christian cult of the dead by this time. Rather, this will be a tenet of Medieval Christianity.
[1] H. Daniel-Rops, The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1960), 206.
[2] Alice Mulhern, “The Roman Catacombs,” Restoration Quarterly 26 (1983): 31.
[3] Douglas Davies, The Theology of Death (London: T. & T. Clark, 2008), 113. As Rebillard notes, “it is possible that in the eyes of the pagans, the practice of inhumation exclusively, and the belief in the resurrection, had marked Christians as being particularly concerned that the body enjoy undisturbed rest in the tomb” (Rebillard, The Care of the Dead, 10).
[4] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 176.
[5] See Nock, “Cremation and Burial.”
[6] Aristides, Apology, ed. Bernard Pouderon and Marie-Joseph, Sources Chrétiennes 470 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2003), 107 ff., quoted in Rebillard, The Care of the Dead, 92.
[7] Rebillard comments: “The difference between Christians and pagans could not have been more striking: the latter avoided the sick, while the former died to help others. Self-sacrifice, comparable to martyrdom, was clearly more important than burying the dead” (ibid., 94), adding “The zeal shown by Christians in burying the dead, a hygienic measure that was indispensable for halting the epidemic [the plague that struck Rome between 251 and 256 A.D.], as well as their solidarity and organization during the plague, certainly helped to define their group identity” (ibid., 95).
[8] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 182.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Coleman, The Antiquities, 413.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 182, n 106.
[13] Byron R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2003), 112.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 184.
[16] Daniel-Rops, The Church of the Apostles, 205. Daniel-Rops notes that these catacombs (Greek kata kumben, meaning “hollow land” or “near the dell”), are located in many cities of late antiquity, with those in Rome being the largest. They are found in Rome, Sicily at Syracuse, in Tuscany, in Africa (Hadrumetes), in Egypt and Asia Minor. The most famous seem to be those at Rome, especially the catacomb at Commodilla on the Ostian Way, and the “regions” of St. Priscilla, St. Domitilla and Ostrianus. The body of St. Paul is believed to be resting in the cemetery at Commodilla (ibid., 205–6).
[17] Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press), 2001, 88.
[18] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 186. See Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.
[19] Ibid., 187.
[20] John F. Baldovin, “Relics, Martyrs, and the Eucharist,” Liturgical Ministry 12 (2003): 9.
[21] For a brief history of the development of the “Christian cult of the dead,” see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. The Haskell Lectures on History of Religions: New Series, vol. 2, ed. Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
[22] Jeroslav Pelikan, The Shape of Death: Life, Death and Immortality in Early Fathers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1961), 5.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

We use cookies to ensure a quality experience. You can change permissions anytime on your browser. Otherwise, we assume you are content to continue.