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A Christian burial is the burial of a deceased person with specifically Christian ecclesiastical rites; typically, in consecrated ground.
Among the Greeks and Romans, both cremation and burial were practiced. However, the Jews and most of the nations of antiquity buried their dead. Even God himself is depicted in the Torah as performing burial: “And buried him (Moses) in the depression in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor. No man knows the place that he was buried, even to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6). Early Christians used only burial, as can be demonstrated from the direct testimony of Tertullian and from the stress laid upon the analogy between the resurrection of the body and the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:42).
In the light of the dogma of the resurrection of the body as well as of Jewish tradition, the burial of the mortal remains of the Christian dead has always been regarded as an act of religious import. It is surrounded at all times with some measure of religious ceremony.
Very little is known with regard to the burial of the dead in the early Christian centuries. The first Christians likely followed the national customs of the people among whom they lived, as long as they were not directly idolatrous. St. Jerome, in his account of the death of St. Paul the Hermit, speaks of the singing of hymns and psalms while the body is carried to the grave as an observance belonging to ancient Christian tradition.
Several historical writings indicate that in the fourth and fifth centuries, the offering of the Eucharist was an essential feature in the last solemn rites. These writings include: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s detailed description of the funeral of St. Macrina, St. Augustine’s references to his mother St. Monica, the Apostolic Constitutions (Book VII), and the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite.
Probably the earliest detailed account of funeral ceremonial which has been preserved to us is to be found in the Spanish Ordinals of the latter part of the seventh century. Recorded in the writing is a description of “the Order of what the clerics of any city ought to do when their bishop falls into a mortal sickness.” It details the steps of ringing church bells, reciting psalms, and cleaning and dressing the body.
Traditionally, the Christian Church opposed the practice of cremation by its members. While involving no necessary contradiction of any article of faith, it is opposed alike to ancient canon law and to the usages (praxis) of antiquity. Burial was always preferred as the method of disposition inherited from Judaism and the example of Jesus’ burial in the tomb. During times of persecution, pagan authorities erroneously thought they could destroy the martyrs’ hope of resurrection by cremating their remains. Though the church always taught that the destruction of the earthly remains posed no threat to the bodily resurrection, many Christians risked their lives to prevent this desecration of the relics of the saints. Furthermore, the bodies of Christians were considered to have been sanctified by baptism and the reception of the sacraments, and thus were to be treated with dignity and respect, as befits a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19). In reaction against the Christian opposition to cremation some have deliberately instructed that their remains be cremated as a public profession of irreligion and materialism. The revival of cremation in modern times has prompted a revision of this opposition by many Christian churches, though some groups continue to discourage the practice, provided there is no intent of apostacy or sacrilige.
During the Middle Ages a practice arose among the aristocracy that when a nobleman was killed in battle far from home, the body would be defleshed by boiling or some such other method, and his bones transported back to his estate for burial. In response, in the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII promulgated a law which excommunicated ipso facto anyone who disembowelled bodies of the dead or boiled them to separate the flesh from the bones, for the purpose of transportation for burial in their native land. He further decreed that bodies which had been so treated were to be denied Christian burial.
The custom of watching by the dead (the wake) is an ancient practice. Its origins are not entirely known. It may have been a Christian observance, attended with the chanting of psalms, or it may have been adopted from paganism, with the singing of psalms introduced to “Christianize” it.
In the Middle Ages, among the monastic orders, the custom was practiced in a desire to perform religious duties and was seen as beneficial. By appointing relays of monks to succeed one another, orderly provision was made that the corpse would never be left without prayer.
Among secular persons, these nocturnal meetings were sometimes an occasion of grave abuses, especially in the matter of eating and drinking. The following is found in the Anglo-Saxon canons of Ælfric, addressed to the clergy:
Ye shall not rejoice on account of men deceased nor attend on the corpse unless ye be thereto invited. When ye are thereto invited then forbid ye the heathen songs (haethenan sangas) of the laymen and their loud cachinnations; nor eat ye nor drink where the corpse lieth therein, lest ye be imitators of the heathenism which they there commit.
In the earliest Ambrosian ritual (eighth or ninth century), which Magistretti pronounces to be derived from Rome, the funeral is broken up into stages: at the house of the deceased, on the way to the church, at the church, from the church to the grave, and at the grave side. But it is also clear that there was originally something of the nature of a wake (vigilioe) consisting in the chanting of the whole Psalter beside the dead man at his home.
The Absolution became common in the second half of the eleventh century. It involves laying a form of absolution upon the breast of the deceased. This is enjoined in the monastic constitutions of Archbishop Lanfranc. Occasionally, a leaden cross etched with a few words was used for this purpose. Many such crosses have been recovered in opening tombs belonging to this period.
The medieval ritual also included an offertory in the funeral of well known and distinguished people. Generous offerings were made in money, and in kind, in the hope of benefiting the soul of the deceased. It was also usual to lead his war-horse up the church fully accoutered and to present it to the priest at the altar rails. It would later be redeemed by a money payment.
The various Catholic religious observances surrounding mortal remains can be divided into three stages.
The first stage involves the parish priest and other clergy going to the house of the deceased. One cleric carries the cross and another carries a vessel of holy water. Before the coffin is removed from the house it is sprinkled with the holy water. The priest, with his assistants, says the psalm De profundis with the antiphon Si iniquitates. Then the procession sets out for the church. The cross-bearer goes first, followed by members of the clergy carrying lighted candles. The priest walks immediately before the coffin, and the friends of the deceased and others walk behind it.
As they leave the house, the priest intones the antiphon Exsultabunt Domino, and then the psalm Miserere is recited or chanted in alternate verses by the cantors and clergy. On reaching the church the antiphon Exsultabunt is repeated. As the body is placed “in the middle of the church,” the responsorial Subvenite is recited.
Historical precedence provides that if the corpse is a layman, the feet are to be turned towards the altar. If the corpse is a priest, then the position is reversed, the head being towards the altar. The earliest reference to this is in Johann Burchard’s “Diary”. Burchard was the master of ceremonies to Pope Innocent VIII and Pope Alexander VI.
A rule also exists that both before the altar and in the grave, the feet of all Christians should be pointed to the East. This custom is alluded to by Bishop Hildebert at the beginning of the twelfth century, and its symbolism is discussed by Guillaume Durand. “A man ought so to be buried”, he says, “that while his head lies to the West his feet are turned to the East…”