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§ 102. Treatment of the Dead



The pious care of the living for the beloved dead is rooted in the noblest instincts of human future, and is found among all nations, ancient and modern, even among barbarians. Hence the general custom of surrounding the funeral with solemn rites and prayers, and giving the tomb a sacred and inviolable character. The profane violation of the dead and robbery of graves were held in desecration, and punished by law.683683    And it occurs occasionally even among Christian nations. The corpse of the richest merchant prince of New York, Alexander T. Stewart (d. 1876), was stolen from St. Mark’s grave-yard, and his splendid mausoleum in Garden City on Long Island is empty.83 No traditions and laws were more sacred among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans than those that guarded and protected the shades of the departed who can do no harm to any of the living. "It is the popular belief," says Tertullian, "that the dead cannot enter Hades before they are buried." Patroclus appears after his death to his friend Achilles in a dream, and thus exhorts him to provide for his speedy burial:


"Achilles, sleepest thou, forgetting me?

Never of me unmindful in my life,

Thou dost neglect me dead. O, bury me

Quickly, and give me entrance through the gates

Of Hades; for the souls, the forms of those

Who live no more, repulse me, suffering not

That I should join their company beyond

The river, and I now must wander round

The spacious portals of the House of Death."684684    Iliad XXIII. 81-88, in Bryant’s translation (IT. 284)-84


Christianity intensified this regard for the departed, and gave it a solid foundation by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Julian the Apostate traced the rapid spread and power of that religion to three causes: benevolence, care of the dead, and honesty.685685    Epist, XLIX. ad Arsacium, the pagan high-priest in Galatia.85 After the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, the Christians in Southern Gaul were much distressed because the enraged heathens would not deliver them the corpses of their brethren for burial.686686    Eus. IX. 8.86 Sometimes the vessels of the church were sold for the purpose. During the ravages of war, famine, and pestilence, they considered it their duty to bury the heathen as well as their fellow-Christians. When a pestilence depopulated the cities in the reign of the tyrannical persecutor Maximinus, "the Christians were the only ones in the midst of such distressing circumstances that exhibited sympathy and humanity in their conduct. They continued the whole day, some in the care and burial of the dead, for numberless were they for whom there was none to care; others collected the multitude of those wasting by the famine throughout the city, and distributed bread among all. So that the fact was cried abroad, and men glorified the God of the Christians, constrained, as they were by the facts, to acknowledge that these were the only really pious and the only real worshippers of God."687687    Eusebius, H. E. V. I.87 Lactantius says: "The last and greatest office of piety is the burying of strangers and the poor; which subject these teachers of virtue and justice have not touched upon at all, as they measure all their duties by utility. We will not suffer the image and workmanship of God to lie exposed as a prey to beasts and birds; but we will restore it to the earth, from which it had its origin; and although it be in the case of an unknown man, we will fulfil the office of relatives, into whose place, since they are wanting, let kindness succeed; and wherever there shall be need of man, there we will think that our duty is required."688688    Instit. Div. Vl.c. 1288

The early church differed from the pagan and even from the Jewish notions by a cheerful and hopeful view of death, and by discarding lamentations, rending of clothes, and all signs of extravagant grief. The terrors of the grave were dispelled by the light of the resurrection, and the idea of death was transformed into the idea of a peaceful slumber. No one, says Cyprian, should be made sad by death, since in living is labor and peril, in dying peace and the certainty of resurrection; and he quotes the examples of Enoch who was translated, of Simeon who wished to depart in peace, several passages from Paul, and the assurance of the Lord that he went to the Father to prepare heavenly mansions for us.689689    Testim. l. III.c. 5889 The day of a believer’s death, especially if he were a martyr, was called the day of his heavenly birth. His grave was surrounded with symbols of hope and of victory; anchors, harps, palms, crowns. The primitive Christians always showed a tender care for the dead; under a vivid impression of the unbroken communion of saints and the future resurrection of the body in glory. For Christianity redeems the body as well as the soul, and consecrates it a temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence the Greek and Roman custom of burning the corpse (crematio) was repugnant to Christian feeling and the sacredness of the body.690690    Comp. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16. Burial was the prevailing Oriental and even the earlier Roman custom before the empire, and was afterwards restored, no doubt under the influence of Christianity Minucius Felix says (Octav. c. 34): "Veterem et meliorem consuetudinem humandi frequentamus." Comp. Cicero, De Leg. II. 22; Pliny, Hist. Nat. VII. 54; Augustin, De Civ Dei I. 12, 13. Sometimes dead Christians were burned during the persecution by the heathen to ridicule their hope of a resurrection.90 Tertullian even declared it a symbol of the fire of hell, and Cyprian regarded it as equivalent to apostasy. In its stead, the church adopted the primitive Jewish usage of burial (inhumatio),691691    Comp. Gen. 23:19; Matt. 27:60; John 11:17; Acts 5:6; 8:2.91 practiced also by the Egyptians and Babylonians. The bodies of the dead were washed, 692692    Acts 9:37.92 wrapped in linen cloths,693693    Matt. 27:59; Luke 23:53; John 11:44.93 sometimes embalmed,694694    John 19:39 sq.; 12:7.94 and then, in the presence of ministers, relatives, and friends, with prayer and singing of psalms, committed as seeds of immortality to the bosom of the earth. Funeral discourses were very common as early as the Nicene period.695695    We have the funeral orations of Eusebius at the death of Constantine, of Gregory of Nazianzum on his father, brother, and sister, of Ambrose on Theodosius.95 But in the times of persecution the interment was often necessarily performed as hastily and secretly as possible. The death-days of martyrs the church celebrated annually at their graves with oblations, love feasts, and the Lord’s Supper. Families likewise commemorated their departed members in the domestic circle. The current prayers for the dead were originally only thanksgiving for the grace of God manifested to them. But they afterwards passed into intercessions, without any warrant in the reaching of the apostles, and in connection with questionable views in regard to the intermediate state. Tertullian, for instance, in his argument against second marriage, says of the Christian widow, she prays for the soul of her departed husband,696696    "Pro anima ejus orat!" Compare, however, the prevailing cheerful tone of the epigraphs in the catacombs, p. 301-303.96 and brings her annual offering on the day of his departure.

The same feeling of the inseparable communion of saints gave rise to the usage, unknown to the heathens, of consecrated places of common burial.697697    Κοιμητήρια, cimeteria, dormitoria, areae.97 For these cemeteries, the Christians, in the times of persecution, when they were mostly poor and enjoyed no corporate rights, selected remote, secret spots, and especially subterranean vaults, called at first crypts, but after the sixth century commonly termed catacombs, or resting-places, which have been discussed in a previous chapter.

We close with a few stanzas of the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 405), in which he gives forcible expression to the views and feelings of the ancient church before the open grave:698698    From his Iam maesta quiesce querela, the concluding part of his tenth Cathemerinon, Opera, ed. Obbarius (1845), p. 41; Schaff, Christ in Song, p. 506 (London ed.). Another version by E. Cagwall: "Cease, ye tearful mourners, Thus your hearts to rend: Death is life’s beginning Rather than its end."98


"No more, ah, no more sad complaining;

Resign these fond pledges to earth:

Stay, mothers, the thick-falling tear-drops;

This death is a heavenly birth.


Take, Earth, to thy bosom so tender,—

Take, nourish this body. How fair,

How noble in death! We surrender

These relics of man to thy care


This, this was the home of the spirit,

Once built by the breath of our God;

And here, in the light of his wisdom,

Christ, Head of the risen, abode.


Guard well the dear treasure we lend thee

The Maker, the Saviour of men:

Shall never forget His beloved,

But claim His own likeness again."



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