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Christian Burial

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The interment of a deceased person with ecclesiastical rites in consecrated ground. The Jews and most of the nations of antiquity buried their dead. Amongst the Greeks and Romans both cremation and interment were practised indifferently. That the early Christians from the beginning used only burial seems certain. This conclusion may be inferred not only from negative arguments but from the direct testimony of Tertullian, "De Corona" (P.L., II, 92, 795; cf. Minucius Felix, "Octavius", xi in P.L., III, 266), and from the stress laid upon the analogy between the resurrection of the body and the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:42; cf. Tertullian, "De Animâ", lv; Augustine, City of God I.13). In the light of this same dogma of the resurrection of the body as well as of Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 1:21; 12:12; Sirach 38:16; 2 Maccabees 12:39), it is easy to understand how the interment of the mortal remains of the Christian dead has always been regarded as an act of religious import and has been surrounded at all times with some measure of religious ceremonial. The motives of Christian burial will be more fully treated in the article CREMATION. As to the latter practice, it will be sufficient to say here that, while involving no necessary contradiction of any article of faith, it is opposed alike to the law of the Church and to the usages of antiquity. In defense of the Church's recent prohibitions, it may be urged that the revival of cremation in modern times has in practice been prompted less by considerations of improved hygiene or psychological sentiment than by avowed materialism and opposition to Catholic teaching.

The law of the Church regarding burial

According to the canon law every man is free to choose for himself the burial ground in which he wishes to be interred. It is not necessary that this choice should be formally registered in his will. Any reasonable legal proof is sufficient as evidence of his wishes in the matter, and it has been decided that the testimony of one witness, for example his confessor, may be accepted, if there be no suspicion of interested motives. (S.C. Concilii, 24 march, 1871, Lex, 189.) Where no wish has been expressed it will be assumed that the interment is to take place in any vault or burial place which may have belonged to the deceased or his family, and failing this the remains should be buried in the cemetery of the parish in which the deceased had his domicile or quasi-domicile. Certain exceptions, however, are recognized in the case of cardinals, bishops, canons, etc. Formerly monastic and other churches claimed and enjoyed under certain conditions the privilege of interring notable benefactors within their precincts. It may be said that no such privilege is now recognized as a matter of right to the detriment of the claim of the parish. If a man die in a parish which is not his own, the canon law prescribes that the body should be conveyed to his own parish for interment if this is reasonably possible, but the parish priest of the place where he died may claim the right of attending the corpse to the place of burial. In fine, the principle is recognized that it belongs to the parish priest to bury his own parishioners. The canon law recognizes for regular orders the right to be buried in the cemetery of their own monastery (Sägmäller, 453; l. Wagner in "Archiv f. kath. Kirchenrecht", 1873, xxxix, 385; Kohn, ibid., xl, 329).

Originally, as burial was a spiritual function, it was laid down that no fee could be exacted for this without simony (Decretum Gratiani, xiii, q. ii; c. viii, ix; Extrav. de sim., V, 3). But the custom of making gifts to the Church, partly as an acknowledgment of the trouble taken by the clergy, partly for the benefit of the soul of the departed, gradually became general, and such offerings were recognized in time as jura stoloe which went to the personal support of the parish priest or his curates. It was, however, distinctly insisted upon that the carrying out of the rites of the Church should not be made conditional upon the payment of the fee being made beforehand, though the parish priest could recover such fee afterwards by process of law in case it were withheld. Moreover in the case of the very poor he is bound to bury them gratuitously. If a parishioner elected to be buried outside his own parish, a certain proportion, generally a fourth part, of the fee paid or the gifts that might be made in behalf of the deceased on occasion of the burial was to go to the priest of his own parish. Where an old custom existed, the continuance of the payment of this fourth part under certain conditions was recognized by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, De ref., c. xiii). Nowadays the principle is still maintained, but generally the payment to the proprius parochus takes the form of the fourth part of a definite burial-fee which is determined according to some fixed tariff (S. C. Ep. et Reg., 19 January, 1866; S.C. Conc., 16 February, 1889), and which may be exacted by the parish priest for every burial which takes place in his district. He has, however, no right to any compensation if a non-parishioner dies and is taken back to his own parish for burial, nor again when one of his own parishioners dies away from home and has to be buried in the place of his demise.

Only baptized persons have a claim to Christian burial and the rites of the Church cannot lawfully be performed over those who are not baptized. Moreover no strict claim can be allowed in the case of those persons who have not lived in communion with the Church according to the maxim which comes down from the time of Pope Leo the Great (448) "quibus viventibus non communicavimus mortuis communicare non possumus" (i.e. we cannot hold communion in death with those who in life were not in communion with us). It has further been recognized as a principle that the last rites of the Church constitute a mark of respect which is not to be shown to those who in their lives have proved themselves unworthy of it. In this way various classes of persons are excluded from Christian burial — pagans, Jews, infidels, heretics, and their adherents (Rit. Rom., VI, c. ii) schismatics, apostates, and persons who have been excommunicated by name or placed under an interdict. If an excommunicated person be buried in a church or in a consecrated cemetery the place is thereby desecrated, and, wherever possible, the remains must be exhumed and buried elsewhere. Further, Christian burial is to be refused to suicides (this prohibition is as old as the fourth century; cf. Cassian in P.L., XL, 573) except in case that the act was committed when they were of unsound mind or unless they showed signs of repentance before death occurred. It is also withheld from those who have been killed in a duel, even though they should give signs of repentance before death. Other persons similarly debarred are notorious sinners who die without repentance, those who have openly held the sacraments in contempt (for example by staying away from Communion at Easter time to the public scandal) and who showed no signs of sorrow, monks and nuns who are found to have died in the possession of money or valuables which they had kept for their own, and finally those who have directed that their bodies should be cremated after death. In all such cases, however, the general practice of the Church at the present day has been to interpret these prohibitions as mildly as possible. Ordinarily the parish priest is directed to refer doubtful cases to the bishop, and the bishop, if any favourable construction can be found, allows the burial to proceed.

Many complications are caused in the administration of the canon law by the political conditions under which the Church exists in modern times in most countries of the world. For instance, the question may often arise whether a non-Catholic can be buried in a consecrated cemetery belonging, not to the civil administration, but to the Church, and perhaps adjoining the sacred building itself; or again in such a case whether non-Catholic worshippers can perform their own rites at the interment. As it often happened that a Catholic graveyard was the only available place of burial in a large district, it has been decided as a matter of necessity that in such cases it was possible to allow Protestants to be buried in a consecrated graveyard (S. C. Inquis., 23 July, 1609). In some instances a special portion of ground has been set aside for the purpose and non-Catholic ritual is permitted to be used there. In cases of necessity the Catholic parish priest may preside at such an interment, but he must not use any ritual or prayers that would be recognized as distinctively Catholic. It hardly needs saying that at the present day in almost every part of the world the prescriptions of the canon law regarding burial are in conflict with secular legislation in more than one particular. In such cases the Church is often compelled to waive her right, in order to prevent greater evils. On the other hand, we may notice that the Church's claim to exercise control over the burial of her members dates back to an age anterior even to the freedom given to Christianity under Constantine. From the beginning the principle seems to have been insisted upon that the faithful should be buried apart from the pagans. Thus St. Cyprian of Carthage makes it a matter of reproach against a Spanish bishop Martial that he had not sufficiently attended to this, and that he had tolerated "filios exterarum gentium more apud profana sepulchra depositos et alienigenis consepultos" (Cyprian, Ep. lxvii, 6). In the same way St. Hilary, a century later, considers that Our Saviour warned His disciples against a similar profanation "Admonuit non admisceri memoriis sanctorum mortuos infideles" (Hilary, in S. Matt., vii). So also the Donatists when they gained the upper hand were so deeply imbued with this principle of exclusive sepulture that they would not allow the Catholics to be buried in the cemeteries they had seized upon. "Ad hoc basilicas invadere voluistis ut vobis solis coemeteria vindicetis, non permittentes sepeliri corpora Catholica" (Optatus, VI, vii). With regard to the exclusion of suicides from the consecrated burial grounds it would appear that some similar practice was familiar to the pagans even before Christianity had spread throughout the empire. Thus there is a well-known pagan inscription of Lanuvium of the year 133: "Quisquis ex quâcunque causâ mortem sibi asciverit eius ratio funeris non habebitur." Probably this was not so much a protest of outraged morality as a warning that in the matter of burial no man had a right to make himself prematurely a charge upon the community. The time of burial is, generally speaking, between sunrise and sunset; any other hour requires the permission of the bishop (Ferraris, s.v., 216, 274, 279). For the rest the diocesan statutes, regulations of the local ecclesiastical authority, and custom are to be considered, also the civil law and the public sanitary regulations.

The ritual of burial

Speaking first of the usages of the Catholic Church at the present day it will probably be convenient to divide the various religious observances with which the Church surrounds the mortal remains of her faithful children after death into three different stages. The prayers and blessings which are provided by the "Rituale" for use before death will best be considered under the heading Death, Preparation for, but in the rites observed after death we may distinguish first what takes place in the house of the deceased and in bringing the body to the church, secondly the function in the church and thirdly the ceremony by the grave side. In practice, it is the exception for the whole of the Church's ritual to be performed, especially in the case of the burial of the laity in a large parish; but in religious houses and where the facilities are at hand the service is generally carried out completely.

With regard to the observances prescribed before the body is conveyed to the church it may be noted that according to the rubrics prefixed to the title "De exsequiis" in the "Rituale Romanum" a proper interval (debitum temporis intervallum) ought to elapse between the moment of death and the burial, especially where death has occurred unexpectedly, in order that no doubt may remain that life is really extinct. In southern climates it is not unusual to celebrate the funeral the day after the decease or even upon the day itself, but the practice both in pagan and Christian times has varied greatly. Among the ancient Romans it would seem that the bodies of persons of distinction were commonly kept for seven days, while the poor were interred the day after death. In these matters the Church has generally been content to adopt the usages which were already in possession. The washing of the corpse is so frequently spoken of both in secular and monastic rituals as to wear almost the aspect of a religious ceremony, but no special prayers are assigned to it. Minute directions are given as to the clothing of the dead in the case of all clergy. They are to be attired in ordinary ecclesiastical costume and over this they are to wear the vestments distinctive of their order. Thus the priest or bishop must be clad in amice, alb, girdle, maniple, stole and chasuble. His biretta should be placed upon his head and the tonsure should be renewed. The deacon similarly wears his dalmatic and stole, the subdeacon his tunicle, and the cleric his surplice. In practice it is usual in the case of a priest to place upon the coffin lid a chalice and paten at one end with the biretta at the other; but this is not ordered in the rubrics of the "Rituale". For the laity it is directed that the body should be decently laid out, that a light should be kept burning, that a small cross should, if possible, be placed in the hands, failing which the hands are to be arranged in the form of a cross, and that the body should occasionally be sprinkled with holy water. The burning of more than one candle beside the body is not directly enjoined for all, but it is mentioned in the "Caeremoniale" in the case of a bishop and is of general observance. On the other hand, it is mentioned that the debita lumina, the candles which according to ancient custom are carried in the procession, ought to be provided by the parish gratuitously in the case of the very poor, and it is very distinctly enjoined that in exacting such fees as custom prescribes on these occasions the clergy ought sedulously to avoid all appearance of avarice. It is also laid down that the laity, even in the case of crowned heads, are never to be carried to the grave by the hands of the clergy — a prescription which can be traced back to a synod of Seville in 1512 and is probably much older. But in the Early Church this does not seem to have been observed, for we have several recorded instances in which ladies who died in repute of sanctity, as for example St. Paula or St. Macrina, were carried to the grave by bishops.

The first stage in the obsequies of a deceased person according to the rite now in use is the conveyance of the body to the church. At an appointed hour the clergy are directed to assemble in the church, a signal being given by the tolling of a bell. The parish priest in surplice and black stole, or if he prefer it wearing a black cope as well, goes to the house of the deceased with the rest of the company, one cleric carrying the cross and another a stoup of holy water. Before the coffin is removed from the house it is sprinkled with holy water, the priest with his assistants saying beside it the psalm De Profundis with the antiphon Si iniquitates. Then the procession sets out for the church. The cross-bearer goes first, religious confraternities, if such there be, and members of the clergy follow, carrying lighted candles, the priest walks immediately before the coffin and the friends of the deceased and others walk behind. 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, and as the body is borne to its place "in the middle of the church" the responsory Subvenite (Come to his assistance ye Saints of God, come to meet him ye Angels of the Lord, etc.) is recited. The present rubric directs that if the corpse be that of a layman the feet are to be turned towards the altar; if on the other hand the corpse be that of a priest, then the position is reversed, the head being towards the altar. Whether this exceptional treatment of priests as regards position is of early date in the West is open to considerable doubt. No earlier example seems so far to have been quoted than the reference to it in Burchard's "Diary" noted by Catalani. Burchard was the master of ceremonies to Innocent VIII and Alexander VI, and he may himself have introduced the practice, but his speaking of it as the customary arrangement does not suggest this. On the other hand, the medieval liturgists apparently know no exception to their rule that both before the altar and in the grave the feet of all Christians should be pointed to the East. This custom we find alluded to by Bishop Hildebert at the beginning of the twelfth century (P.L., CLXXI, 896), and its symbolism is discussed by Durandus. "A man ought so to be buried", he says, "that while his head lies to the West his feet are turned to the East, for thus he prays as it were by his very position and suggests that he is ready to hasten from the West to the East" (Ration. Div. Off., VII, 35). But if Roman medieval practice seems to offer no foundation for the distinction now made between the priest and the layman, it is noteworthy that in the Greek Church very pronounced differences have been recognized from an early date. In the "Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" of Pseudo-Dionysius, which belong to the fifth century, we learn that a priest or bishop was placed before the altar (epiprosthen tou seiou thysiasteriou), while a monk or layman lay outside the holy gates or in the vestibule. A similar practice is observed to the present day. The corpse of a layman during the singing of the "Panychis" (the equivalent of the "Vigiliae Mortuorum" or Vigil of the Dead) is usually deposited in the narthex, that of a priest or monk in the middle of the church, while in the case of a bishop he is laid during a certain portion of the service in different positions within the sanctuary, the body at one point being placed behind the altar exactly in front of the bishop's throne and the head towards the throne (Maltzew, Begrabniss-Ritus, 278) It is possible that some imitation of this practice in Dalmatia or in Southern Italy may have indirectly led to the introduction of our present rubric. The idea of both seems to be that the bishop (or priest) in death should occupy the same position in the church as during life, i.e. facing his people whom he taught and blessed in Christ's name.

Supposing the body to have been brought to the church in the afternoon or evening, the second portion of the obsequies, that carried out in the church, may begin with the recital of the Vespers for the Dead. This, however, is not prescribed in the "Rituale Romanum", which speaks only of Matins and Lauds, though Vespers are mentioned in the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" in the case of a bishop. If the Vespers for the Dead are said they begin with the antiphon Placebo, and the Office of Matins, if we exclude the invitatory, begins with the antiphon Dirige. For this reason the "Placebo and Dirige," of which we so constantly find mention in medieval English writers, mean simply the Vespers and Matins for the Dead. It is from the latter of these two words that the English term dirge is derived. Candles are lighted round the coffin and they should be allowed to burn at least during the continuance of the Office, Mass, and Absolutions. Throughout the Office for the Dead each psalm ends with Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them) in the place of the Gloria Patri. It is interesting perhaps to note here that the liturgist, Mr. Edmund Bishop, after minute investigation has come to the conclusion that in this familiar formula, Requiem oeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis, we have a blending of two distinct liturgical currents' "the second member of the phrase expresses the aspiration of the mind and soul of the Roman, the first the aspiration of the mind and soul of the Goth" (Kuypers, Book of Cerne, 275). It is true that it has been maintained that the words are borrowed from a passage in IV Esdras (Apocrypha), ii, 34-35, but we may doubt if the resemblance is more than accidental.

With regard to the Office and Mass which form the second portion of the Exsequioe, the Matins after a preliminary invitatorium: "Regem cui omnia vivunt, venite adoremus", consist of nine psalms divided as usual into three nocturns by three sets of lessons and responsories. The first nocturn, as already noted, begins with the antiphon "Dirige, Domine Deus meus, in conspectu tuo vitam meam", and is made up of the three psalms, Verba mea, Psalm 5, Domine ne in furore, Psalm 6, and Domine Deus meus, Psalm 7, each having its own antiphon, which is duplicated. The lessons both in this and in the following nocturns are all taken from the Book of Job, chapters 7, 10, 13, 14, 17 and 19, in which the sufferer expresses the misery of man's lot, but above all his unalterable trust in God. The lessons are read without the usual absolution and blessing, but each is followed by a responsory, and some of these responsories in their picturesque conciseness deserve to be reckoned among the most striking portions of the liturgy. We may quote for example the last responsory of the third nocturn which occurs again before the absolution. It is this translated in the Roman Breviary of the late Marquess of Bute:

Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death in that awful day when the heavens and earth shall be shaken, and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Verse. Quaking and dread take hold upon me, when I look for the coming of the trial and the wrath to come.

Answer. When the heavens and the earth shall be shaken.

Verse. That day is a day of wrath, of wasteness and desolation, a great day and exceeding bitter.

Answer. When Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Verse. O Lord, grant them eternal rest, and let everlasting light shine upon them.

Answer. Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death in that awful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be shaken and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

There seems reason to believe that this responsory is not of Roman origin (Batiffol, Roman Breviary, 198) but it is of considerable antiquity. At present, if the whole three nocturns (the second of which consists of Psalms 22, 24, 26; and the third of Psalms 39, 40 and 41) are not said owing to lack of time or for any other cause, then another responsory, Libera me de viis inferni, is sung in place of that just quoted. Lauds follow immediately, in which the psalms Miserere and Te decet hymnus replace those usually said at the beginning and the Canticle of Ezechias is sung instead of the Benedicite. The Benedictus is recited with a special antiphon from John 11:25-26. This is familiar to many as having been retained in the burial service of the Church of England, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die". Finally after certain preces follows the impressive collect Absolve, which is also said in the Mass, "Absolve, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the soul of thy servant N. that being dead to this world he may live to Thee, and whatever sins he may have committed in this life through human frailty, do Thou of Thy most merciful goodness forgive; through our Lord Jesus Christ", etc.

The "Rituale" directs that if all three nocturns of the office cannot be said, it would be desirable to say at least the first. But it is even more emphatic in urging that Mass should not be omitted except on certain privileged festivals of the highest class which exclude a Mass for the dead proesente cadavere, i.e. even when the body is present. These days include the feasts of Christmas, the Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension, Whitsunday, Corpus Christi, The Annunciation, Assumption and Immaculate Conception, Nativity of St. John Baptist, St. Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul, All Saints, the last three days of Holy Week, the Quarant' Ore, or Forty Hours, and certain patronal feasts. On all other days, roughly speaking, the Church not only permits but greatly desires that the Holy Sacrifice should be offered for the deceased as the most solemn part of the rite of interment. To secure this the severer regulations of earlier centuries have in many respects been greatly relaxed in recent times. For example it is not now of obligation that the Mass should be sung with music. In the case of poor people who cannot defray the expenses incident to a Mass celebrated with solemnity, a simple low Mass of Requiem is permitted even on Sundays and other prohibited days, provided that the parochial Mass of the Sunday be also said at another hour. Moreover this one Missa in die obitus seu depositionis may still be offered in such cases, even when on account of contagious disease or other serious reason the body cannot be brought to the church. As in the case of the Office, the Mass for the Dead is chiefly distinguished from ordinary Masses by certain omissions. Some of these, for example that of the Psalm Judica and of the blessings, may be due to the fact that the Missa de Requie was formerly regarded as supplementary to the Mass of the day. In other cases, for instance in the absence of hymns from the Office for the Dead, we may perhaps suspect that these funeral rites have preserved the tradition of a more primitive age. On the other hand, the suppression of the Gloria in excelsis, etc., as of the Gloria Patri seems to point to a sense of the incongruity of joyful themes in the presence of God's searching and inscrutable judgments. Thus a tractate of the eighth or ninth century printed by Muratori (Lit. Rom. Vet., II, 391) already directs that in the Vigils for the Dead "Psalms and lessons with the Responsories and Antiphons belonging to Matins are to be sung without Alleluia. In the Masses also neither Gloria in exelsis Deo nor Alleluia shall be sung." (Cf. Ceriani, Circa obligationem Officii Defunctorum, 9.)

In the early Christian ages, however, it would seem that the Alleluia, especially in the East, was regarded as specially appropriate to funerals. Another omission from the ordinary ritual of high Mass is that of the kiss of peace. This ceremony was always associated in idea with Holy Communion, and as Communion was not formerly distributed to the faithful at Masses for the Dead, the kiss of peace was not retained. A conspicuous feature of the Requiem Mass is the singing of the sequence, or hymn, "Dies irae". This masterpiece of medieval hymnology is of late introduction, as it was probably composed by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century. It was not designed for its present liturgical use but for private devotion — note the singular number throughout voca me cum benedictis, quid sum miser tunc dicturus, etc., as also the awkwardness of the added pie Jesu Domine dona eis requiem, but the hymn appears printed in the "Missale Romanum" of 1485, though apparently not in the earlier edition of 1474. However the use of the "Dies irae" in connection with the exsequioe mortuorum is much more ancient, and Dr. Ebner has found it, musically noted as at present, in a Franciscan Missal of the thirteenth century. (Ebner, Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Missale Romanum, 120). During the Mass it is customary, though not a matter of precept, to distribute tapers of unbleached wax to the congregation or at least to those assisting within the sanctuary. These are to be lighted during the Gospel, during the latter part of the Holy Sacrifice from the Elevation to the Communion, and during the absolution which follows the Mass. As already remarked the association of lights with Christian obsequies is very ancient, and liturgists here recognize a symbolical reference to baptism (the illumination, photismos) whereby Christians are made the children of Light, as well as a concrete reminder of the oft repeated prayer et lux perpetua luceat eis. (Cf. Thalhofer, Liturgik, II, 529.)

After Mass follows the absolution or Absoute, to use the convenient term by which the French designate these special prayers for pardon over the corpse before it is laid in the grave. These prayers of the Absoute, like those said by the grave side, ought never to be omitted. The subdeacon bearing the processional cross, and accompanied by the acolytes, places himself at the head of the coffin (i.e. facing the altar in the case of a layman, but between the coffin and the altar in the case of a priest), while the celebrant, exchanging his black chasuble for a cope of the same colour, stands opposite at the foot. The assisting clergy are grouped around and the celebrant without preamble begins at once to read the prayer Non intres in judicium cum servo tuo, praying that the deceased "may deserve to escape the avenging judgment, who, whilst he lived, was marked with the seal of the holy Trinity". This is followed by the responsory "Libera me Domine", which, as occurring in the Matins for the Dead, has already been quoted above. Then after the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison the priest says aloud the Pater Noster and while this is repeated in silence by all, he makes the round of the coffin, sprinkling it with holy water and bowing profoundly before the cross when he passes it. After which, taking the thurible, he incenses the coffin in like manner; where we may note that the use of incense at funerals is derived from the earliest Christian centuries, though no doubt our manner of waving the censer towards persons and objects is relatively modern. Moreover it is possible that the incense was originally employed on such occasions for sanitary reasons. Finally after finishing the Pater Noster and repeating one or two short versicles to which answer is made by the clergy, the celebrant pronounces the prayer of absolution, most commonly in the following form:

O God, Whose attribute it is always to have mercy and to spare, we humbly present our prayers to Thee for the soul of Thy servant N. which Thou has this day called out of this world, beseeching Thee not to deliver it into the hands of the enemy, nor to forget it for ever, but to command Thy holy angels to receive it, and to bear it into paradise; that as it has believed and hoped in Thee it may be delivered from the pains of hell and inherit eternal life through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Although this prayer in its entirety cannot be surely traced to an earlier date than the ninth century, it contains several elements that recall the phraseology of primitive times. It is to be found in most of our existing manuscripts of the Gregorian Sacramentary. At the burial of bishops, cardinals, sovereigns, etc., not one but five absolutions are pronounced according to the forms provided in the "Pontificale Romanum". These are spoken by five bishops or other "prelates", each absolution being preceded by a separate responsory. In these solemn functions the prayer just quoted is not said, but most of the responsories and prayers used are borrowed from the Office for the Dead or from the Masses in the Roman Missal. It may be noted that all these absolutions are not in the declaratory but in the deprecatory form, i.e. they are prayers imploring God's mercy upon the deceased.

After the absolution the body is carried to the grave and as the procession moves along the antiphon "In paradisum" is chanted by the clergy or the choir. It runs thus: "May the angels escort thee to paradise, may the martyrs receive thee at thy coming and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, mayst thou have eternal rest." According to the rubric "the tomb (sepulchrum) is then blessed if it has not been blessed previously"; which has been ruled to mean that a grave newly dug in an already consecrated cemetery is accounted blessed, and requires no further consecration, but a mausoleum erected above ground or even a brick chamber beneath the surface is regarded as needing blessing when used for the first time. This blessing is short and consists only of a single prayer after which the body is again sprinkled with holy water and incensed. Apart from this the service at the grave side is very brief. The priest intones the antiphon: "I am the Resurrection and the Life", after which the coffin is lowered into the grave and the Canticle Benedictus is meanwhile recited or sung. Then the antiphon is repeated entire, the Pater Noster is said secretly, while the coffin is again sprinkled with holy water, and finally after one or two brief responses the following ancient prayer is said: "Grant this mercy, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy servant departed, that he may not receive in punishment the requital of his deeds who in desire did keep Thy will, and as the true faith here united him to the company of the faithful, so may Thy mercy unite him above to the choirs of angels. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Then with the final petition: "May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace", the little procession of cross-bearer, surpliced clerics, and priest return to the sacristy reciting the De Profundis as they go. In some places the custom prevails that the officiating priest before retiring should offer the holy-water sprinkler to the relatives of the deceased who are present, in order that they may cast holy water upon the coffin in the grave. In others it is usual for the priest himself and for all present to throw down upon the coffin a handful of earth. This custom symbolical no doubt of "dust to dust" is certainly ancient and even in the "Rituale Romanum" a rubric is to be found prescribing that "in obsequies which have of necessity to be performed only in private and at the house of the deceased, blessed earth is put into the coffin while the Canticle Benedictus is being said". This no doubt is to be regarded as the nearest available equivalent to interment in a consecrated grave. In other localities, more particularly in Germany, it i[s] customary for the priest to deliver a short discourse (Leichenrede) before leaving the cemetery. This is the more appropriate because nearly everywhere in Germany the civil law forbids the corpse to be taken to the church except in the case of bishops and other exalted personages. The result is that Mass and Office are performed with a catafalque only, and seem even in those rare cases in which they are retained to have nothing to do with the burial, instead of forming, as they should do, its most essential feature. On the other hand the service at the grave side is apt to appear strangely brief and perfunctory unless impressiveness be given to it by the discourse of the officiating priest. It may be noted that many local customs are still allowed to continue without interference in the ritual observed by the grave side. Before the Reformation there was an extraordinary variety of prayers and responsories commonly recited over the grave especially in Germany. The extreme simplicity of the "Rituale Romanum" represents no doubt a reaction against what threatened to become an abuse. Of the peculiar rites which so long survived locally, the Ritual of Brixen may be taken as an illustration. In this when the priest blesses the corpse with holy water, he is directed to say: "Rore coelesti perfundat et perficiat animam tuam Deus". As the body is lowered into the ground he says: "Sume terrâ quod tuum est, sumat Deus quod suum est, corpus de terrâ formatum, spiritus de coelo inspiratus est". Then the priest scatters earth upon the body with a shovel three times, saying, "Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris". After this the Magnificat is recited and the psalm Lauda anima mea Dominum, with various prayers, and then with a wooden cross the priest signs the grave in three places, at the head, in the middle, and at the feet, with the words; "Signum Salvatoris Domini nostri Jesu Christi super te, qui in hac imagine redemit te, nec permittat introire, [and here he plants the wooden cross at the head of the grave] angelum percutientem in aeternum". It is interesting to note that after once more blessing the grave with holy water he recites a prayer over the people in the vernacular. The clergy and all others present also sprinkle holy water on the grave before they depart.

The burial of little children

The "Rituale Romanum" provides a separate form of burial for infants and children who have died before they have reached years of discretion. It directs that a special portion of the cemetery should be set aside for them and that either the bells should not be tolled or that they should be rung in a joyous peal. Further, custom prescribes that white and not black should be used in token of mourning. The priest is bidden to wear a white stole over his surplice and a crown of flowers or sweet foliage is to be laid upon the child's brow. The processional cross is carried, but without its staff. The body may be borne to and deposited temporarily in the church, but this is not prescribed as the normal arrangement and in any case no provision is made for either Office or Mass. One or two psalms of joyous import, e.g. the Laudate pueri Dominum (Ps. cxii), are appointed to be said while the body is borne to the church or to the cemetery, and holy water and incense are used to bless the remains before they are laid in the ground. Two special prayers are included in the ritual, one for use in the church, the other by the grave side. The former, which is certainly ancient, runs as follows: "Almighty and most compassionate God, Who upon all little children that have been born again in the fountain of Baptism, when they leave this world without any merits of their own, straightway bestowest everlasting life, as we believe that Thou has this day done to the soul of this little one, grant we beseech Thee, O Lord, by the intercession of Blessed Mary ever Virgin and of all Thy saints, that we also may serve Thee with pure hearts here below and may consort eternally with these blessed little ones in paradise, Through Christ our Lord, Amen." On the way back to the church the Canticle Benedicite is recited, and the prayer "Deus qui miro ordine angelorum ministeria hominumque dispensas", which is the collect used in the Mass of St. Michael's day, is said at the foot of the altar. The cross without the handle which is carried in the procession is considered to be symbolical of an incomplete life. Many other peculiarities are prevalent locally. Thus in Rome in the eighteenth century, as we learn from Catalani, the dead child was generally clothed in the habit known as St. Philip Neri's. This is black in colour but sprinkled all over with gold and silver stars. A tiny biretta is placed upon the child's head and a little cross of white wax in its hands. Miniature habits of the different religious orders are also commonly used for the same purpose.

History of our present ritual

With regard to the burial of the dead in the early Christian centuries we know very little. No doubt the first Christians followed the national customs of those peoples amongst whom they lived, in so far as they were not directly idolatrous. The final kiss of farewell, the use of crowns of flowers, the intervals appointed for recurring funeral celebrations, the manner of laying out the body and bearing it to the grave, etc., show nothing that is distinctive of the Christian Faith, even though later ages found a pious symbolism in many of these things. Moreover the use of holy water and incense (the latter originally as a sort of disinfectant) was also no doubt suggested by similar customs among the pagans around them. Perhaps we should add that the funeral banquets of the pagans were in some sense imitated by the agapoe or love-feasts of the Christians which it seems to have been usual to celebrate in early times (see Marucchi, Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne, I, 129), also that the anniversary Masses and "months minds" of the Church undoubtedly replaced a corresponding pagan usage of sacrifices. (See Dublin Review, July, 1907, p. 118.) But of the existence of some distinctively religious service we have good evidence at an early date. Tertullian refers incidentally to the corpse of a woman after death being laid out cum oratione presbyteri. 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. Again St. Gregory of Nyssa in his detailed description of the funeral of St. Macrina, St. Augustine in his references to his mother St. Monica, and many other documents like the Apostolical Constitutions (Bk. VII) and the "Celestial Hierarchy" of Pseudo-Dionysius make it abundantly clear that in the fourth and fifth centuries the offering of the Holy Sacrifice was the most essential feature in the last solemn rites, as it remains to this day. Probably the earliest detailed account of funeral ceremonial which has been preserved to us is to be found in the Spanish Ordinals lately published by Dom Ferotin. It seems to be satisfactorily established that the ritual here described represents in substance the Spanish practice of the latter part of the seventh century. We may accordingly quote in some detail from "the Order of what the clerics of any city ought to do when their bishop falls into a mortal sickness". After a reference to Canon iii of the seventh Council of Toledo (646) enjoining that a neighbouring bishop should if possible be summoned, the directions proceed:

At what hour soever the bishop shall die whether by day or night the bell (Signum) shall at once be rung publicly in the cathedral (ecclesia seniore) and at the same time the bell shall ring in every church within a distance of two miles.

Then while some of the clergy in turn recite or chant the psalms earnestly and devoutly, the body of the bishop deceased is stripped by priests or deacons. After washing the body . . . it is clothed with his usual vestments according to custom, i.e. his tunic, his breeches, and his stockings, and after this with cap (capello) and face-cloth (sudario). Thereupon is put upon him an alb, and also a stole (orarium) about his neck and before his breast as when a priest is wont to say Mass. Also a cruet is placed in his hand. Then the thumbs of his hands are tied with bands, that is with strips of linen or bandages. His feet are also fastened in the same way. After all this he is robed in a white chasuble (casulla). Then after spreading beneath a very clean white sheet, the body is laid upon the bier and all the while the priests, deacons and all the clergy keep continually reciting or chanting and incense is always burned. And in this wise he is laid in the choir of the church over which he ruled, lights going before and following behind and then a complete text of the gospels is laid upon his breast without anything to cover it, but the gospel itself rests upon a cloth of lambswool (super pallium agnavum — this can hardly be the archiepiscopal pallium in its technical sense) which is placed over his heart. And so it must be that whether he die by night or day the recitation of prayers or chanting of psalms shall be kept up continuously beside him until at the fitting hour of the day Sacrifice may be offered to God at the principal altar for his repose. Then the body is lifted up by deacons, with the gospel book still lying on his breast, and he is carried to the grave, lights going before and following after, while all who are of the clergy sing the antiphons and responsories which are consecrated to the dead (quoe solent de mortuis decantare).

After this when Mass has again been celebrated in that church in which he is to be buried, salt which has been exorcised is scattered in the tomb by deacons, while all other religious persons present sing the antiphon, In sinu Abrahae amici tui conloca eum Domine. And then when incense has a second time been offered over his body, the bishop who has come to bury him advances and opening the dead man's mouth he puts chrism into it, addressing him thus: 'Hoc pietatis sacramentum sit tibi in participatione omnium beatorum'. And then by the same bishop is intoned the antiphon: In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam. And this one verse is said, "Expectans, expectavi Dominum et respexit me'; and the chanting is so arranged that the verses are said one by one while the first is repeated after each. When Gloria has been said the antiphon is repeated but not a second time.

Two impressive collects are then said and another prayer which is headed "Benedictio". After which "the tomb is closed according to custom and it is fastened with a seal".

Probably this rather elaborate ceremony was a type of the funerals celebrated throughout Spain at this epoch even in the case of the lower clergy and the laity. Of the final prayer we are expressly told that in may also be used for the obsequies of a priest. Further it is mentioned that when the priest is laid out he should be clothed just as he was wont to celebrate Mass, in tunic, shoes, breeches, alb, and chasuble.

The rite of putting chrism into the bishop's mouth, as mentioned above, does not seem to be known elsewhere, but on the other hand, the anointing the breast of a dead person with chrism was formerly general in the Greek Church, and it seems to have been adopted at Rome at an early date. Thus in certain directions for burial and for Masses for the dead contained in the Penitential of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (c. 680) we meet the following: "(1) According to the Church of Rome, it is the custom, in the case of monks or religious men, to carry them after their death to the church, to anoint their breasts with chrism, and there to celebrate Masses for them; then to bear them to the grave with chanting, and when they have been laid in the tomb, prayer is offered for them; afterwards they are covered in with earth or with a slab. (2) On the first, the third, the ninth, and also the thirtieth day, let Mass be celebrated for them, and furthermore, let this be observed after a year has passed, if it be wished."

It seems natural to conjecture that the Spanish custom of putting the chrism into the mouth of the dead may have been meant to replace the practice which certainly prevailed for a while in Rome of administering the Blessed Eucharist either at the very moment of death or of leaving it with the corpse even when life was extinct. A clear example of this is forthcoming in the "Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great" (II, xxiv,) and see the Appendix on the subject in Cardinal Rampolla's "Santa Melania Giuniore" (p. 254). There is some reason to believe that the inscription Christus hic est (Christ is here), or its equivalent, occasionally found on tomb-stones (see Leblant, Nouveau Recueil, 3) bears reference to the Blessed Eucharist placed on the tongue of the deceased. But this practice was soon forbidden.

The custom of watching by the dead (the wake) is apparently very ancient. In its origin it was either a Christian observance which was attended with the chanting of psalms, or if in a measure adopted from paganism the singing of psalms was introduced to Christianize it. In the Middle Ages among the monastic orders the custom no doubt was pious and salutary. By appointing relays of monks to succeed one another orderly provision was made that the corpse should never be left without prayer. But among secular persons these nocturnal meetings were always and everywhere an occasion of grave abuses, especially in the matter of eating and drinking. Thus to take a single example we read among 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" (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, 448). We may reasonably suppose that the Office for the Dead, which consists only of Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, without Day-hours, originally developed out of the practice of passing the night in psalmody beside the corpse. In the tenth Ordo Romanus which supplies a description of the obsequies of the Roman clergy in the twelfth century we find the Office said early in the morning, but there is no mention of praying beside the corpse all night. In its general features this Roman Ordo agrees with the ritual now practised, but there are a good many minor divergences. For example the Mass is said while the Office is being chanted; the Absoute at the close is an elaborate function in which four prelates officiate, recalling what is now observed in the obsequies of a bishop, and the service by the grave side is much more lengthy than that which now prevails. In the earliest Ambrosian ritual (eighth or ninth century) which Magistretti (Manuale Ambrosianum, Milan, 1905, I, 67 sqq.) pronounces to be certainly derived from Rome we have the same breaking up of the obsequies into stages, i.e. 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, with which we are still familiar. 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 (Magistretti, ib., I, 70).

A curious development of the Absoute, with its reiterated prayers for pardon, is to be found in the practice (which seems to have become very general in the second half of the eleventh century) of laying a form of absolution upon the breast of the deceased. This is clearly enjoined in the monastic constitutions of Archbishop Lanfranc and we have sundry historical examples of it. (Cf. Thurston, Life of St. Hugh of Lincoln, 219.) Sometimes a rude leaden cross with a few words scratched thereupon was used for the purpose and many such have been recovered in opening tombs belonging to this period. In one remarkable example, that of Bishop Godfrey of Chichester (1088), the whole formula of absolution may be found in the same indicative form which meets us again in the so-called "Pontifical of Egbert". It is noteworthy that in the Greek Church to this day a long paper of absolution, now usually a printed form, is first read over the deceased and then put into his hand and left with him in the grave.

The only other point among the many peculiar features of medieval ritual which seems to claim special notice here is the elaborate development given to the offertory in the funeral of illustrious personages. Not only on such occasions were very generous offerings made in money and in kind, with a view, it would seem, of benefiting the soul of the deceased by exceptional generosity, but it was usual to lead his war-horse up the church fully accoutred and to present it to the priest at the altar rails, no doubt to be afterwards redeemed by a money payment. The accounts of solemn obsequies in early times are full of such details and in particular of the vast numbers of candles burned upon the hearse; this word hearse in fact came into use precisely from the resemblance which the elaborate framework erected over the bier and bristling with candles bore to a harrow (hirpex, hirpicem). Of the varying and protracted services by the grave side, which at the close of the Middle Ages were common in many parts of Germany and which in some cases lasted on until a much later period, something has already been said.

Ritual of the Greek Church

The full burial service of the Greek Church is very long and it will be sufficient here briefly to call attention to one or two points in which it bears a close resemblance to the Latin Rite. With the Greeks as with the Latins we find a general use of lighted candles held by all present in their hands, as also holy water, incense and the tolling of bells. With the Greeks as in the Western Communion, after a relatively short service at the house of the deceased, the corpse is borne in procession to the church, and deposited there while the Pannychis, a mournful service of psalmody, is recited or sung. In the burial of a bishop the Holy Sacrifice or divine liturgy is offered up, and there is in any case a solemn absolution pronounced over the body before it is borne to the grave. Black vestments are usually worn by the clergy, and again, as with us, the dead man, if an ecclesiastic, is robed as he would have been robed in life in assisting at the altar. There are, however, a good many features peculiar to the Eastern Church. A crown, in practice a paper band which represents it, is placed upon the dead layman's head. The priest is anointed with oil and his face is covered with the aer, the veil with which the sacred species are covered during the Holy Sacrifice. Also the open Gospel is laid upon his breast as in the early Spanish ordinal. The Alleluia is sung as part of the service and a symbolical farewell is taken of the deceased by a last kiss. Upon the altar stands a dish with a cake made of wheat and honey, emblematic of the grain which falling to the ground dies and bringeth forth much fruit. Moreover many difference are made in the service according as the dead person is layman, monk, priest, or bishop, and also according to the ecclesiastical season, for during paschal time white vestments are worn and another set of prayers are said. The burial rite of the Greeks may be seen in Goar, "Euchologium Graecorum" (Paris, 1647), 423 sqq.; also in the new Russian edition by Al. Dmitrieoski (Kiev, 1895-1901). For the law of the Church of England concerning burial, see Blunt-Phillimore "The Book of Church Law" (London, 1899), 177-87, and 512-17, text of Burial Laws Amendment Act of 1880.

Burial confraternities

It would take us too far to go into this subject at length. Even from the period of the catacombs such associations seem to have existed among the Christians and they no doubt imitated to some extent in their organization the pagan collegia for the same purpose. Throughout the Middle Ages it may be said that the guilds to a very large extent were primarily burial confraternities; at any rate the seemly carrying out of the funeral rites at the death of any of their members together with a provision of Masses for his soul form an almost invariable feature in the constitutions of such guilds. But still more directly to the purpose we find certain organizations formed to carry out the burial of the dead and friendless as a work of charity. The most celebrated of these was the "Misericordia" of Florence, believed to have been instituted in 1244 by Pier Bossi, and surviving to the present day. It is an organization which associates in this work of mercy the members of all ranks of society. Their self-imposed task is not limited to escorting the dead to their last resting-place, but they discharge the functions of an ambulance corps, dealing with accidents as they occur and carrying the sick to the hospitals. When on duty the members wear a dress which completely envelops and disguises them Even the face is hidden by a covering in which only two holes are left for eyes. See CEMETERY; CREMATION; REQUIEM.


Sources

Catalani, Commentarius in Rituale Romanum (1756); Thalhofer, Liturgik, II, Pt. II; Idem, in Kirchenlex., s.v.; Binterim, Denkwurdigkeiten (Mainz, 1838), VI, Pt. III, 362-514; Martene, De antiquis Ecclesioe ritibus, II and IV; Ruland, Geschichte der kirchlichen Leichenfeier (Ratisbon, 1902); Alberti, De sepultura ecclesiastica (1901); Proces, La sepulture dans l'église catholique, in Precis historiques (Brussels, 1882); Murcier, La sepulture chretienne en France (Paris, 1855); Probst, Die Exsequien (Mainz, 1856); Marucchi, Elements d' archeologie chret, (Rome, 1899), I, 129-131; Petrides, in Dict. d' arch. et lit. s.v. Absoute. On the Canon Law of burial, see especially Lex, Das kirchliche Begrabnissrecht (Ratisbon, 1904); also Sagmuller, Kirchenrecht (Freiburg, 1904), Pt. III; Ferraris, Bibliotheca, s.v. sepultura; Von Scherer, Kirchenrecht, II, 601. On Burial in the Greek Church: Maltzew, Begrabniss-Ritus (Berlin, 1896). On Absolution Crosses: Chevreux, in Bulletin archeol. (Paris, 1904), 391-408; Cochet, La Normandie souterraine; Idem, Sepultures gauloises (Paris, 1855 and 1857), 71 sqq.; Kraus, Kunst und Alterthum in Lothringen (Strasburg, 1889), 604-612. See also the bibliography of the article Cemetery.

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). Christian Burial. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03071a.htm

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Christian Burial." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03071a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Larry Trippett.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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