If this be true, doubtless also the providing for the interment of bodies a place at the memorials of Saints is a mark of a good human affection towards the remains of one’s friends: since if there be religion in the burying, there cannot but be religion in taking thought where the burying shall be. But while it is desirable there should be such like solaces of survivors, for the showing forth of their pious mind towards their beloved, I do not see what helps they be to the dead save in this way: that upon recollection of the place in which are deposited the bodies of those whom they love, they should by prayer commend them to those same Saints, who have as patrons taken them into their charge to aid them before the Lord. Which indeed they would be still able to do, even though they were not able to inter them in such places. But then the only reason why the name “memorials” or “monuments” is given to those sepulchres of the dead which become specially distinguished, is that they recall to memory, and by putting in mind cause us to think of, them who by death are withdrawn from the eyes of the living, that they may not by forgetfulness be also withdrawn from men’s hearts. For both the term memorial most plainly shows this, and monument is so named from monishing, that is, putting in mind. For which reason the Greeks also call that μνημεῖον which we call a memorial or monument: because in their tongue the memory itself, by which we remember, is called μνήμη. When therefore the mind recollects where the body of a very dear friend lies buried, and thereupon there occurs to the thoughts a place rendered venerable by the name of a Martyr, to that same Martyr does it commend the soul in affection of heartfelt recollection and prayer. (6)
St Augustine of Hippo, bishop, “On the care to be had for the dead” [De cura pro mortuis gerenda]
As some of you know, I am writing my Master’s thesis on the topic of Christian burial. I wanted to write about something — an action with a liturgy — that both Christians and pagans do, but that Christians do in a particularly Christian way. The two actions that immediately came to mind were marriage and burial. In truth burial seemed more interesting and less documented than marriage, and when I raised the idea to my advisor, he seemed very interested in the idea, too.
Burial is a difficult topic for many of us because it is necessarily associated with death, usually the death of a loved one. But, I think, burial and the liturgies associated with burial are not a necessary evil, as some might say, but a necessary good. Burial is less about “saying goodbye” for the living as it is a space of hope and prayer for the dead. The corpse (and we should call it a “corpse” instead of a “body” since the body is the place of both flesh and soul; a corpse has given up the soul) is laid to rest in the ground with prayers and tears: our prayers for the soul unto heaven and its rest in hope of heaven, and our tears as our expression of charity for the departed and expiation of our own sins.
The tomb itself is a monument, as Augustine above mentions, a memorial, not necessarily for what the departed did in her life, but as a reminder to the living to pray for her. This is why we light candles as we say their names, place flowers by the altar in their memory, pray their names on All Souls, and visit their monuments yearly, monthly, or weekly. We pray their names by these markers, not as some emotional attachment to what they did in their lifetime, but as a hope for where they are and where they are going.
George Richmond, “A Figure weeping over a grave” (1827)