Religions across the world reveal a variety of different
ways of disposing of a body once a person dies. Some burn the body and send the
ashes floating on a sacred river, others let the body dry out and then gather
the bones into an ossuary, while others expose the body to be eaten by
Although Christianity never
indulged in anything as exotic as vultures or even river trips, there is an
interesting tale in the changes to burial practices as the polytheistic Roman
Empire became Christian in the fourth and fifth century AD.
This transformation appears clearly in the ancient city of
Rome. Like all major cities of the ancient world, Rome was surrounded by a
The pagans of the Roman world,
like the ancient Jews, buried their dead outside the wall. With few exceptions,
dead bodies were not permitted to remain within the city, for they were
considered to be religiously impure and capable of polluting the temples to
their gods and goddesses.
Wealthy families purchased plots of land outside the wall
where they built massive tombs to bury generations of their dead. Even today,
if you walk along the Appian Way (the ancient road from Rome to Appia), you can
see the ruin of tombs from many rich families. These tombs were built as
monuments honoring the deceased.
Every road out of Rome had an area lined with these tombs.
This area was called a “necropolis.” Since “polis” means “city,” a Roman
graveyard of tombs was literally a “city of the dead.”
Romans cremated their dead and so the tombs
contained urns of ashes.
At Rome, Christianity changed this way of death. Christians
buried their dead not in a necropolis, but in a “cemetery.” This word comes
from the Greek verb “koimao
means “to fall asleep.”
This is related
to the Biblical passage of 1st Thessalonians 4:13-17, which reads in part, “God
will bring with him those who have fallen asleep….the dead in Christ will rise
first.” On this Scriptural passage, Christian built a theology that saw the dead
as “sleeping,” instead of being completely finished with life. So rather than
cremate the bodies, Christians buried them as whole corpses, as if they were
sleeping, so they would be ready to rise at the coming of Christ.
This theological shift had a practical consequence. Since
the dead were “sleeping,” Christianity did not consider them impure, as did the
The most striking example of this shift came from Emperor
Constantine in the early fourth century. The bones of St. Peter, who had been
crucified in Rome, were buried in the necropolis to the west of the city.
Constantine decided to build a cathedral over these remains to honor them. He
constructed a massive church in the necropolis, which became the center of
Christianity in Rome and to which large numbers of people came to worship, some
on a religious basis and others as a pilgrimage.
Rome’s western necropolis thus changed from a pagan
necropolis containing impure dead to a Christian cemetery containing pure
“sleepers,” to a hallowed (or holy) site of the important Christian cathedral
of St. Peter.
Indeed, we could
understand St. Peter’s as being sanctified by the relics of Peter, the Saint
whom the cathedral honors, and it in turn sanctifying those buried within and
As Christianity supplanted polytheism in the city of Rome,
St. Peter’s and other churches and cathedrals were incorporated into the
growing metropolis. The cemeteries and tombs associated with those institutions
became part of the city as well. The dead were no longer excluded from the
city, but became a key part of it. Over the coming centuries, this new
Christian way of death would spread across the Empire, Christian Europe, and