When Did Funerals Start Being in Churches?

Early Christian funerals were at the graves of the deceased, just like their Jewish and Roman predecessors.
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When Christianity emerged in the first century A.D., the adherents of this new religion retained many of their old traditions. As such, early Christian rituals such as funerals resembled closely their Jewish and Roman counterparts. There is no single moment that can be pinpointed as marking the movement of funerals into churches. Rather, rituals slowly evolved from their Jewish or Roman roots and by the sixth century, most funeral services were at least partially held in a church.

1 Jewish Funerals

Many aspects of Jewish funerary rituals are recorded in the New Testament Gospels and as such became common for Christians as well. Typically, the body was washed after death, anointed and wrapped in linen. Burial occurred as soon as possible after death (a necessity in the hot Mediterranean climate) and the funeral service itself occurred outside of the tomb. As Jewish prayer was transmitted orally, there is no record of which prayers were spoken at Jewish funerals. However, later sources suggest that the prayers included scriptural references emphasizing the righteousness of God.

2 Roman Funerals

Just as in Jewish tradition, in Roman tradition the body was washed and anointed after death. It was then clothed in garments appropriate to the person's rank in life. While Romans traditionally cremated their dead, burial of ashes or bone fragments still took place. They shifted to inhumation in the first century. The funeral was held graveside and involved partaking in a meal in honor of the dead. This commemorative meal was repeated on the ninth day after the funeral, on the birthday of the dead and during certain annual public festivals. In all of these cases, some food would be set aside to nourish the deceased in the afterlife.

3 Early Christian Funerals

The earliest Christian funerals included aspects of both Jewish and Roman funerals. They too washed, anointed and wrapped the bodies of the dead and buried them soon after death in tombs or graves outside of the city limits. The funerals took place at the graveside and included both prayer and commemorative meals. Members of the clergy were not required to attend funerals, but they were sometimes invited to include the Eucharist as part of the funeral service. Over time, church authorities determined that the Eucharist should only be given in a church, which helped to encourage the shift from the grave to the church.

4 Christian Conceptions of Death

Early Christian funerals differed from their Jewish and Roman counterparts in the meaning that they applied to death. Initially, since they believed Jesus' return to be imminent, there was little concern about the physical death of Christians. As time passed, however, Christians began to focus more on the care of the dead while they waited for Jesus' arrival and developed standardized funeral rites. Additionally, over the centuries, Christian authorities began to distance themselves from Jewish and Roman traditions, rejecting some practices entirely (such as the graveside feast) and shifting the funeral location from the family grave to the universal church where the dead could be commemorated by the entire Christian community.

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.