Christians and their Dead

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

This is the fourth installment of a five part series. You can view the previous installments part 1, part 2, and part 3.
2.2.3. Christians and their Dead (Part 1)
Finally, we now consider Christian attitudes towards death in Late Antiquity (specifically, 2nd to 3rd centuries A.D.). This was an extremely crucial time as it was the earliest formative stages of Christianity after it formally parted ways with Judaism. It helps to remember that, in its earliest existence, Christianity was considered a “sect” of Judaism. However, historians note that, after the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–135 A.D., the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity was completed.[1] As this section turns its attention to the attitudes shown towards death by Christians at this crucial formative stage, special emphasis will be put on how Christian practices towards the dead showed both affinity and dissonance to those of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. That is, while, as noted above, the attitudes and practices towards death in the Greco-Roman culture, for example, exhibited hopelessness towards this grandest of all the enemies of humanity, on the other hand, while sharing the same attitude, Christianity’s attitudes (as seen through the rites towards the dead), indicated great hope beyond the grave, thanks to their understanding of death as the soul’s departure to Paradise to await its re-unification with the glorified body in the eschaton. These similarities and differences will become clear as the discussion progresses.
As discussed above, when death became imminent, Christians administered the last rites to the dying as both family members and church leaders gathered to console the living. That is, as much as early Christians tried to preserve life, they were also very much aware of this one fact: death lurked around every corner of their earthly existence. However, to these Christians, in contrast to later and especially modern understanding of death as “natural,” death was God’s occasion of His revelation of His power to create as well as both the meaning of sin and life. To them, thus, “Our death, as the judgement of God as the Creator, invites and demands our confession that the One who wills our death is none other than the creator of all things, who makes by making alive.”[2] For these Christians (and many after them in the history of the Church) therefore, “The context of death become then the occasion for faith and right worship; it becomes the occasion for the confession that God is the creator of all things.”[3] These theological convictions demonstrated themselves as Christians went through the process of handling and disposal of their dead.
Just like both the Greeks and the Romans, when a Christian died, “early Christians would normally wash the body and clothe it in linen, preferably white linen.”[4] The use of white linen to indicate holiness, is well attributed in the early church (for example, during baptism, catechists would be clothed with white linen as they emerged from the water as a sign of their holiness). After the corpse was clothed in linen, it would then be laid in repose, awaiting funeral and burial. However, “In contrast to the Jews, Christians normally deposited their dead in a coffin.”[5] Jews, it should be noted, would bury their dead only in wrapped lined. Christians would, then, anoint the body and embalm it to await proper burial in due time. During the repose, the body was available for public viewing (since it had been embalmed), and the last rites were administered on it. In the exercise of these rites, Christians were focused on Jesus Christ, their Savior. As Hopkins comments, “Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were a central feature in Christianity’s message [a message that was dramatized through these rites].”[6] For example, although Christians grieved for dead, “the wailings of mourning women were, on no account, allowed as was customary among the Jews and many pagan nations.”[7] Instead of grieving this way, “such lamentations were exceedingly incongruous to Christians who regarded death as no loss, but unspeakable gain.”[8] Thus, as far as these rites are concerned (and the entire process of the disposal of the dead), “Christian attitudes were much more positive [than those of the Greeks and the Romans]. Christians believed in Christ’s death and resurrection; they hoped for life everlasting for themselves, and many of them believed in the resurrection of the body.”[9]
In terms of the disposal of dead, historians have noted a significant change from cremation and inhumation as the proper methods for the disposal of the dead to just inhumation. This change was noticeable throughout the Roman Empire, and was most noticed by the 4th century A.D. Thus, “Although it is not clear when this preference was finally fully made among Christians, by the fourth century AD, inhumation had clearly become the preferred method of the disposal of the dead.”[10] Scholars continue to debate when this change took place in Christendom. For example, on the one hand, Coleman sees this practice as old as Christianity itself.[11]  On the other hand, Rebillard sees this change as having taken place in the second century since cremation was still the norm in the first century.[12]  Finally, Nock is unclear on the timing of this change, he sees it as having taken place during the time of the Roman Empire.[13]  However, in any case, by the fourth century, it is clear that inhumation had become the standard practice of disposing the dead among Christians throughout the Roman Empire.
A number of possible reasons have been offered for this change from cremation (and mummification, in some cases), to only inhumation as the only method for the disposal of the Christian dead. The fact that this change was most noticeable among Christians, is well-documented. Some clues for this change are discernable amongst scholars of this period of church history. For example, Kenneth Latourette, while discussing Christian art, noted “Christians disapproved cremation, the form of disposing the dead followed by pagans, and held that the body should be buried intact.”[14] The reason(s) behind this change, nevertheless, continue to be debated amongst historians.
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).[15] 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, Thomas A. Robinson, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), 2009.
[2] William C. Weinrich, “Death and Martyrdom: An Important Aspect of Early Christian Eschatology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66 (2002): 331. Weinrich calls this modern understanding of death as “natural” an “Ancient and a modern heresy that the church…must combat” (ibid., 328).
[3] Ibid., 331.
[4] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 173.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Hopkins, Death and Renewal, 232.
[7] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 173.
[8] Ibid., 173–74.
[9] Hopkins, Death and Renewal, 230–31.
[10] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 174.
[11] Coleman, The Antiquities, 408.
[12] Éric Rebillard, The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity, trans. Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings and Jeanine Routier-Pucci, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), 79.
[13] Arthur Darby Nock, “Cremation and Burial in the Roman Empire,” Harvard Theological Review 25 (1932): 321. See also James Kyriakakis, “Byzantine Burial Customs: Care of the Deceased from Death to the Prothesis,” Greek Orthodox Review 19 (1974), 32–72. Concerning the origin of cremation among the Romans as well as its reasons, Rebillard writes: “According to Pliny the Elder (23-79) inhumations are more vulnerable to tomb violations than cremations: “Cremation was not actually an old practice at Rome: the dead used to be buried. But cremation was instituted after it became known that the bodies of those fallen in wars abroad were dug up again. All the same, many families kept on the old ritual; for instance, it is recorded that nobody in the family of the Cornelii was cremated before Sulla the dictator, and that he had desired it [cremation] because he was afraid of reprisals for having dug up the corpse of Gaius Marius” (Natural History 7.187). The greater vulnerability is the only reason Pliny offers to explain abandoning inhumation for soldiers who die in foreign lands as well as for Sylla fearing to see his own body dug up out of revenge” (ibid, quoted in Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 174 n 79).
[14] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953), 251. As Caroline Walker Bynum notes, it has been observed that the earliest Christian prayer over a corpse reflects their thought on God. “It is worth noting here,” writes Bynum, “that the oldest extant Christian prayer over a corpse stresses the contrast between an incorruptible God and creatures who must be lifted from change into changelessness. “God, you who have the power of life and death, God of the spirits and lord of all flesh … you who change and transform and transfigure your creatures, as is right and proper, being yourself alone incorruptible, unalterable, and eternal, we beseech you for the repose and rest of this your servant…. refresh her soul and spirit in green pastures … and raise up the body in the day which you have ordained” Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336. Lectures on the History of Religions, vol. 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 46 n 101.
[15] See, for example, Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 18–21, 51–52 and Athenagoras, The Resurrection of the Dead (De ressurectionae), 25.

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