Friday, March 2, 2012


Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

Today, in anticipation of Good Friday and the burial of Our Lord, we examine some of the burial rites and traditions of 1st Century Jews and the early Christians. Because of Christianity’s Jewish roots, let’s first make a short review of Jewish traditions concerning the dead. You’ll find the parallels with Christian practices enlightening.

Judaism, like Christianity, is based on traditions and rituals. Ritualized mourning serves several purposes, it shows respect for the dead, comforts those left behind, helps prevent excessive mourning, and eventually leads the bereaved back to normal life.  

The tradition of the se’udat habra’ah — a meal of condolence seems to be an exclusively Jewish one. There are deep psychological reasons behind this gesture. It recognizes that mourners, having just returned from the heavy trauma of the burial, may harbor a death wish for themselves and not want to go on without their loved one. The meal they must eat speaks to that part of them saying, “No, you must go on. You must affirm life and live.” The meal consists of Bread, considered the sustenance of life, Hard Boiled Eggs, a round food representing the cycle of life, and Lentils, which are also round. 

The first (intense) period of mourning, Shiva (seven), lasts seven days. Mourners sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs…hence, the term Sitting Shiva. The next period, known as Schloshim (thirty), lasts until the 30th day after burial. The final period of formal mourning, Avelut, lasts for 12 months from burial and is observed only for a parent. After the first year, the anniversary of death (yahrzeit) is remembered annually.  

In the early Christian communities the third, seventh, and thirtieth day were memorial days, on which there was a ceremony for the dead. There was also a memorial service on the anniversary of a person’s death and each year thereafter. The date of a saint’s death was considered their “Birthday” into eternal life and was thus celebrated annually. A saint’s day of memorial on the liturgical calendar has always been on the day of their death, not their birth as it is with our modern custom with Washington’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday, Martin Luther King’s birthday, etc. The third day memorial is clearly a reference to the Resurrection; however, interestingly enough, there is a modern trend in some parts of Judaism to reduce the period of Shiva to three days. 

The Romans, Greeks as well as most other ancient cultures practiced cremation. The Jews, however, considered burial the only proper method of disposing of a dead body. Even God himself is depicted in the Torah as performing a burial: “And God 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).  

In the light of the belief in the resurrection of the body in Jewish tradition (Tobit 1:21; 12:12; Sirach 38:16; 2 Maccabees 12:39) as well as in Christianity, it is easy to understand why the interment of the mortal remains of the Christian dead has always been regarded as an act of religious importance and has been surrounded with some measure of ceremony.  

It is clear that from the very beginning the early Christians buried their dead. This conclusion is supported by direct testimony from ancient documents such as The Octavius by Minucius Felix,   Tertullian’s  De Corona as well as from the stress laid upon the analogy between the General Resurrection of all faithful and the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:42, Tertullian’s De Animâ and Augustine’s  City of God).  

Later, when the Christians in Rome began to place their dead in the catacombs, they developed their own language in speaking about death. They referred to the catacombs as Koimeteria, dormitories. For a pagan, a dormitory was the room where you went to bed at night and rose in the morning. For Christians it meant more than that. You went to sleep so that you might waken again. Thus death was but a place of rest from which you would certainly rise anew.   

A second example is the word Depositio. Markers with the word Depositus, (abbreviated depo, Dep or simply D) can immediately be identified as Christian. Depositio was a legal term used by lawyers, which meant giving on deposit. To the early Christians, the dead were deposited in the earth like grains of wheat to be restored in the future crops.   

Inscriptions and Symbols on a Marble Slab
Each side of the catacomb had rows of rectangular niches, called loculi, cut into the walls. They typically contained only one body, occasionally two…perhaps in the case of a husband and wife who died together. The burials of the early Christians were simple affairS. The corpses, in imitation of Christ, were wrapped in a sheet or shroud and placed in the loculi without any kind of coffin. The loculi were closed with a slab of marble or, in most cases, clay tiles fixed by mortar. The name of the deceased was painted or engraved, along with a Christian symbol or a wish that the person find peace in heaven. Oil lamps and small vases containing perfumes were often placed beside the tombs.  

Next time we’ll see what we can learn from the 1890 painting The Three Mary’s at the Empty Tomb by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.

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