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3. Funeral Solemnities

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XX. Funeral Rites and Ceremonies

3. Funeral Solemnities

The body was borne on a bier in solemn procession to the burial place, and followed by the relatives and friends of the deceased as mourners, among whom the clergy and some others were reckoned. Besides these many others, as spectators, joined in the procession. These processions were sometimes so thronged as to occasion serious accidents, and even the loss of life. It was the duty of the acolyths to conduct the procession. The bier was borne sometimes on the shoulder, and sometimes by the hands. The nearest relations or persons of rank and distinction were the bearers. Even the bishops and clergy often officiated in this capacity.

The tolling of bells at funerals was introduced in the eighth and ninth centuries. This office is expressed in the following distich, which was inscribed upon the church bell:

Laudo Deum verum; plebem voco; congresso clerum,
Defunctos ploro; nimbum fugo; festaque honoro.

Previous to the use of bells the trumpet and wooden clappers were used for similar purposes.

Palms and olive branches were carried in funeral processions for the first time in the fourth century, in imitation of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The cypress was rejected because it was a symbol of mourning. The carrying of burning lamps and tapers was earlier and more general. This was a festive representation of the triumph of the deceased over death, and of his union with Christ, as in the festival of the Lamb in the Apocalypse. The Christians repudiated the custom of crowning the corpse and the coffin with garlands, as savoring of idolatry. But it was usual with them to strew flowers upon the grave. 

Psalms and hymns were sung while the corpse was kept, while it was carried in procession, and around the grave. Notices of this custom are found in several authors. These anthems were altogether of a joyful character. But Bingham has well remarked that "we cannot expect to find much of this in the first ages, while the Christians were in a state of persecution; but as soon as their peaceable times were come, we find it in every writer. The author of the Apostolical Constitutions (lib. vi. c. 30) gives this direction, that they should carry forth their dead with singing, if they were faithful. 'For precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.' and again it is said, 'Return to thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath rewarded thee. And the memory of the just shall be blessed: and the souls of the just are in the hand of the Lord.' These, probably, were some of the versicles which made up their psalmody on such occasions. For Chrysostom, speaking of this matter, not only tells us the reason of their psalmody, but also what particular psalms or portions of them they made use of for this solemnity. * What mean our hymns?' says he; 'do we not glorify God and give him thanks, that he hath crowned him that is departed, that he hath delivered him from trouble, that he hath set him free from all fear? Consider what thou singest at that time; Turn again unto thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath rewarded thee. And again, I will fear no evil, because thou art with me. And again. Thou art my refuge from the affliction which compasseth me about. Consider what these psalms mean. If thou believest the things which thou sayest to be true, why dost thou weep and lament, and make a mere pageantry and mock of thy singing? If thou believest them not to be true, why dost thou play the hypocrite, so much as to sing? (Chrysost, Horn. 4 in Hebr.) He speaks this against those who used excessive mourning at funerals, showing them the incongruity of that with this psalmody of the church." (Book xxiii. c. 3.)

Funeral prayers also constituted an appropriate part of the burial service of the dead.

Funeral orations * were also delivered, commemorative of the deceased. Several of these are still extant, as that of Eusebius at the funeral of Constantine; those of Ambrose on the deaths of Theodosius and Valentinian, and of his own brother Satyrus; those of Gregory, and of Nazianzum upon his father, his brother Caesarius, and his sister Gorgonia.

The sacrament of the Lord's supper was administered at funerals and often at the grave itself. By this rite, it was intimated that the communion of saints was still perpetuated between the living and the dead. It was a favorite idea that both still continued members of the same mystical body one and the same on earth and in heaven. This mode of celebrating the supper was also an honorable testimony to the faith of the deceased, and of his consistent christian profession in life. The Roman Catholic superstition of offerings and masses for the dead took its rise from this ancient usage of the church. Some time previous to the sixth and seventh centuries, it became customary to administer the elements to the dead – to deposit a portion of the elements in the coffin – to give a parting kiss of charity, and to conclude 'the funeral solemnities with an entertainment similar to the agapae. Of these usages the first mentioned were speedily abolished, and the last was gradually discontinued.

It was universally customary with Christians to deposite the corpse in the grave, as in modern times, facing the east; and in the same attitude as at the present day. The reasons for this are given in the following extract: Christiani solent sepelire.

  1. Supinos, quia mors nostra proprie non est mors, sed brevis quidam somnus.
  2. Vultu ad coelum converso, quia solo in coelo spes nostra fundata est.
  3. Versus orientem, argumento sperandae et exoptandae resurrectionis. 

The burial service was concluded, like all other religious solemnities, with the Lord's prayer and the benediction.

Gregor. Naz. Orat. 20. p. 371:

Gregor. Nyssen. Vit. Macrin. tom. ii. p. 201: Theodor. h. e. lib. v. C.36.

Clemen. Alex. Paedag. lib. ii. c. 8.

Ambros. De Ob. Valent. c. 56: Prudent. Hymn, pro exseq.

Chrysost. Hom. 30. De Dormient. tom. v. p. 380: Hierar. Ep.27: Gregor. Naz. Orat. 10.

Cone. Carthag. iii. c. 29: Pos6id. Vit. August, c. 13.

Cone. Carthag. iii.e. 6: Trull, c. 133.

Andr. Quenstedt. De Sepult. Vet. p. 133.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

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