What Is the Origin of Church Funeral Services?

Christian funerals initially occurred at the same place as Roman funerals -- the grave.
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Death rituals are among the most stable facets of most societies. Activities surrounding the care and burial of the dead are slow to change even when other aspects of the culture shift. Thus, when Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire, it did not immediately establish its own rituals around the commemoration of the dead. Instead, the private family rituals of the traditional Roman religions slowly transformed into funeral services within the church.

1 Roman Funerals

Roman funerary practices centered largely around commemoration of the dead through the sharing of ritual meals. Such funerary banquets occurred at the graveside of the deceased on the day of burial, the ninth day after the funeral, on the birthday of the departed and during annual public festivals of the dead that were celebrated throughout the empire. At these funerary celebrations, the family would set aside a portion of food for their deceased loved ones with the expectation that their spirits could somehow share in the meal celebrating their memory and gain the nourishment required in the afterlife.

2 Christian Funerary Feasts

Initially, many Christians continued the tradition of sharing meals at the graveside of their deceased loved ones. Most Christians did not see this ancient practice as a religious one and so did not see it as compromising their new faith.

Just as traditional Roman funerals were essentially private family affairs, so were the funerals of early Christians. There was no need for clergy to be present at the funeral and no specific readings were required. Often, scriptures were read and hymns were sung, but this was in keeping with the tradition of entertainment that also occurred at non-Christian funerary feasts.

3 Commemoration of Martyrs

The shift from private family funerals to more public funerals under the authority of the church is largely connected to the commemoration of martyrs. Because they died for their faith during persecutions, martyrs were considered to have a special relationship with God. As such, their graves quickly became the location for pilgrimages, as Christians sought to both commemorate their sacrifices and ask for the martyrs' help. As these sites became more popular, shrines and churches were set up near martyrs' graves and the clergy began to engage more closely with the celebration of the martyrs and of the dead in general.

4 Movement into the Church

In conjunction with the establishment of martyr churches, bishops began to preach sermons on the anniversaries of the martyrs' deaths, thus shifting the commemoration of the martyrs from the grave to the church. Bishops began to identify certain scriptures with certain martyrs, thereby beginning the process of establishing a regulated funeral liturgy.

Additionally, the traditional food of funerary feasts slowly came to be replaced with the celebration of the Eucharist. While clergy would sometimes bring the Eucharist to the graves of the deceased, over time the Eucharist came to be permitted only within the church. If family members wanted the Eucharist to be part of the funeral celebration, they needed to have the entire ceremony within the church itself.

HD Livingston has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Manitoba. She is also completing a Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Ottawa.