Burial Services

In earliest Christianity, actual burial practices followed the customs of Judaism with the exception that (because of the resurrection of Jesus) a more positive note was introduced in the funeral service. Greater care was taken for the body due to the conception of it as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” With persecution and martyrdom, Christian burial practices gave greater emphasis symbolically, liturgically, and spiritually to those who witness (marturion) to their faith with their lives.

Our earliest distinctively Christian cemeteries are in the area of Rome, “and as martyrs to the faith multiplied, such cemeteries became consecrated ground, and the tombs of the martyrs were ere long places of pious meditation and devotion” (HERE, IV, p. 456). In time, churches were erected either on gravesites or near them, and when the eucharistic celebration became the major focus of Christian worship and liturgy, it was easy to associate this worship with death. Supporting the practice of eucharistic ceremonies (Requiem Mass) were two developments: the Jewish tradition of saying prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12:40-46); and the ecclesiological developments which came to distinguish the Church Militant and Church Triumphant from the Church Suffering (said to be Christians in purgatory). Early Christian sources do not forbid cremation as a burial practice; however, the custom of burying in the “earth” was stressed as preferred (cf. Tertullian, De Anima, 51; Origen, Contra Celsus, 5.23, 8.30; Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 1.12-13). Partly because of the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection and Second Coming, as well as the positive emphasis upon martyrdom, funeral services in the centuries prior to the eighth were occasions of joy and celebration; however, from the eighth century black rather than white characterized funeral dress, and the liturgy gave great emphasis to prayers for speedy purification (from purgatory) and even deliverance from hell. The ceremonies themselves came to include Vespers, night before funeral; Matins and Lauds, the dirge during the night; and the Requiem Mass with prayers for absolution in the morning. At the graveside special committal prayers are offered. Protestant practice generally became less liturgical.

See also Death; E.K. Mitchell, “Death and Disposal of the Dead: Early Christian,” HERE, IV, pp. 456-58; E. Bendann, Death Customs: An Analytical Study of Burial Rites (1930; rep. 1970).