The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity

The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity

Éric Rebillard
Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings
Jeanine Routier-Pucci
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity
    Book Description:

    In this provocative book Éric Rebillard challenges many long-held assumptions about early Christian burial customs. For decades scholars of early Christianity have argued that the Church owned and operated burial grounds for Christians as early as the third century. Through a careful reading of primary sources including legal codes, theological works, epigraphical inscriptions, and sermons, Rebillard shows that there is little evidence to suggest that Christians occupied exclusive or isolated burial grounds in this early period.

    In fact, as late as the fourth and fifth centuries the Church did not impose on the faithful specific rituals for laying the dead to rest. In the preparation of Christians for burial, it was usually next of kin and not representatives of the Church who were responsible for what form of rite would be celebrated, and evidence from inscriptions and tombstones shows that for the most part Christians didn't separate themselves from non-Christians when burying their dead. According to Rebillard it would not be until the early Middle Ages that the Church gained control over burial practices and that "Christian cemeteries" became common.

    In this translation of Religion et Sépulture: L'église, les vivants et les morts dans l'Antiquité tardive, Rebillard fundamentally changes our understanding of early Christianity. The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity will force scholars of the period to rethink their assumptions about early Christians as separate from their pagan contemporaries in daily life and ritual practice.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5916-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    This book’s title, The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity, is directly inspired by the title of a treatise Augustine wrote toward the end of his life.¹ His friend Paulinus of Nola had asked him about the utility for salvation of being buried next to a martyr. It was a difficult question and Augustine offered a carefully balanced answer: burial, whether or not next to a martyr’s tomb, is not relevant to salvation and therefore would not matter from a Christian point of view were men not attached to the idea. In this text and a few others, Augustine...

  5. Chapter 1 The Problem of the Origins: Christian Burial in Rome and Carthage
    (pp. 1-12)

    Textbooks on church history or Christian archaeology all contain accounts of the organization of cemeteries by the first Christian communities at Rome and Carthage at the end of the second century. As I have stated in the introduction, the question is actually far from being as simple as one might think from reading the textbooks. In this brief chapter I wish to point out that the question of the origins is now facing an impasse, and thus pave the way for an approach that will take a radically different point of view. The basic account for the organization of the...

  6. Chapter 2 Burial and Religious Identity: Religious Groups and Collective Burial
    (pp. 13-36)

    In Les Origines du culte des martyrs, Hippolyte Delehaye writes, “The custom that quickly spread of not mingling Christian tombs with pagan ones, but instead setting aside separate areas, was hardly unprecedented. Other associations or groups had introduced this type of solidarity in death into their practices.”¹ This statement needs verification, for, besides the obvious relevance to Christianity, it raises the issue of the social behavior of religious groups whose differentiation is one of the characteristics of late antiquity.

    Religious development in Late Antiquity is often described as an inevitable movement toward monotheism, according to a point of view that...

  7. Chapter 3 Voluntary Associations and Collective Burial: The Church, Christians, and the Collegia
    (pp. 37-56)

    Greco-Roman collegia have often been compared to, or contrasted with, the church. An old theory, but one that is constantly repeated, holds that the first Christian communities created collegia in order to enjoy legal status in the Roman Empire. Another theory holds that collegia disappeared when the church assumed the social activities they had performed. Paradoxically, however, Christian membership in collegia, which were omnipresent in the life of cities, is never explicitly considered. We must therefore reexamine the evidence, particularly since our knowledge of the collegia themselves and their transformation in the late Empire has increased considerably.

    Funerary activity is...

  8. Chapter 4 Violation of Tombs and Impiety: Funerary Practices and Religious Beliefs
    (pp. 57-88)

    As religion imposed no rules fixing the choice of burial place that might have conflicted with choices determined by kinship and family, it must now be asked whether burial itself was a religious necessity. It is very often said that Christians gave particular importance to burial owing to their belief in resurrection. The body had to be protected in anticipation of resurrection and therefore placement in a tomb was, if not indispensable for salvation, at least preferable. Augustine alone would have argued against such beliefs and wanted to impose a more spiritual understanding of the care for the dead.¹ To...

  9. Chapter 5 Christian Piety and Burial Duty: From the Duty to Bury the Dead to the Organization of Burial for the Poor
    (pp. 89-122)

    “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” These are the words of Julian, around 360 CE, on the Christian Church (Epistulae 22.429d ) in a programmatic letter to restore paganism as the state religion. The moderns, having fully accepted the idea put forth by his Christian critics that Julian tried to imitate the best of Christian practices,¹ failed to notice that his vocabulary and his intentions were not so transparent. The piety of...

  10. Chapter 6 Christian Funerals and Funerals of Christians: The Church and the Death Ritual in Late Antiquity
    (pp. 123-139)

    The notion that the church sought to assume collective responsibility for the relations between the living and the dead is closely linked to the idea that there was a Christian ritual for death and burial. However, there are only scattered data in the sources. Rather than reconstructing a ritual in hindsight, as liturgists continue to do in too many cases, we need to look at these scattered data in their proper context. It appears that the church was no more involved in developing rituals for death and burial than it was, for example, for marriage.¹ These issues are important because...

  11. Chapter 7 The Church, Christians, and the Dead: Commemoration of the Dead in Late Antiquity
    (pp. 140-175)

    In recent years, medievalists have shown how the Christian cult of the dead was woven into, and evolved with, social institutions, even though doctrine itself did not necessarily change.¹ The relationship between doctrine and practice is a complex one, and several points of funerary doctrine were not yet established by the mid-fifth century.² It is not my intention to define the stages of development of the Christian cult of the dead. I wish here to reexamine the evidence in the pastoral context in which they were produced in order to reconstruct both sides of a dialogue that has often been...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 176-178)

    The initial question regarding the existence of cemeteries in the third century—by cemeteries, I mean, spaces that were administered by the church for the communal burial of Christians—now seems a distant one. This book does not by any means answer all the questions raised about archaeological evidence on Christian burial. Its only claim regarding archaeological evidence is to suggest new questions. Nothing that we know about the structural organization of the church or that we find in the theological and the liturgical sources, provided we avoid teleological interpretations, supports the traditional position according to which the Late Antique...

  13. Primary Sources
    (pp. 179-190)
  14. Secondary Sources
    (pp. 191-212)
  15. Index
    (pp. 213-224)