From bone boxes to cemetery headstones

By | November 9, 2009

Cemetery history influenced by many cultures over the centuries

“Now I lay me down to sleep.”

This familiar bedtime prayer can remind us not only of the overnight sleep we get daily, but also of the sleep from which we shall awaken to eternal life.

As we approach November, we remember our loved ones who lie at rest in our cemeteries.

The word “cemetery” comes from the Greek koiman, which translates as “to put to sleep.” There is a similar Greek word keimai, which can be translated as “I lie down,”  and the Latin version coemeterium, which means “a sleeping place.”

Cemeteries certainly predate Christianity. Ancient humans, long before the great civilizations, buried their dead in various manners, including barrows, which are shallow graves with soil mounded over.

The ancient Egyptians devised elaborate burial rituals, and Greeks and Romans used various methods of burial and cremation. Ancient Jews never used cremation because they considered being burned after death to be a curse. The burial of Sarah, the wife of Abraham (Genesis, chapter 23), is the first recorded in the Bible. Abraham was later buried with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, facing Hebron. Burial in caves or tombs outside city walls continued in the time of Jesus.

The first Christians continued Jewish burial practices. Since death was considered temporary and resurrection assured, early Christians, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, adapted to the burial practices where they lived. So Coptic Christians around Alexandria, Egypt — traditionally evangelized by the Evangelist Mark — prepared their dead as mummies.

The burial of groups of people not related to each other, but who shared common beliefs and interests, can be traced to ancient Rome. There, artisan guilds provided burial insurance, and cemeteries, for their members.

For Christians, burials near fellow Christians soon developed and wealthy Christians allowed less affluent Christians to be buried in their family plots and tombs as acts of charity. This was the beginning of Christian cemeteries.

Roman law did not allow burial inside city walls, so burials took place along major roads leading to the city. Due to limited space, the custom of Christians in Rome — who were often poor — of burying their dead in catacombs began to develop around the third century. The catacombs were built around the graves of Christians martyred during the persecutions of the Roman emperors. (These became especially harsh in the third and fourth centuries.)

The underlying rock around Rome is especially soft and easy to excavate. Catacombs eventually covered an area of more than 600 acres with more than 2 million burials. Catacombs were largely unique to Rome and, as the “Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism” notes, no standard form of Christian burial had developed even by the turn of the first millennium.

What became common then was burial near churches which — following early Christian custom — were often located near graves of martyrs. Masses celebrated at these holy sites were joyful events, not to mourn a martyr’s death but emphasizing Christ’s triumph and the communion of saints. Other Christians wished to be buried near these sites and, once laws about burial inside city walls were relaxed, church cemeteries became common.

“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that burials of significant people (besides martyrs) — usually rulers or wealthy benefactors — inside churches started with the Roman emperors. Constantine and Theodosius were buried under the entrance of the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. Not long after, the custom of burying popes under the Basilica of St. Peter developed.

However, for the average person, burial in a church has never been common. (Private chapels are another matter.) In fact, canon law prohibits it (can. 1242) except for popes, cardinals and diocesan bishops. Instead, most Catholics for the past 1,000 years have been buried in churchyards or cemeteries set aside by a local parish.

While such cemeteries date to medieval times, they may share origins with monasteries, which date to the desert fathers of the first centuries. For example, the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai dates to at least the sixth century with its inner chapel of the Burning Bush built by St. Helen in the fourth century. In Europe, St. Benedict founded Monte Cassino in Italy in the early sixth century.

To save space, monastery cemeteries often had charnel houses. After a body had been buried for a time in the ground, the bones were dug up and reverently placed in these chapels to make room for new cemetery burials. Many non-monastic cemeteries, especially in Europe, adopted this custom. In some ways, it mirrors Holy Land burials around the time of Christ. There, family burial caves contained ossuaries in which bones were placed after the bodies had decomposed.

Burning bodies does not have a long tradition in the church — except for health reasons during plagues or mass tragedies. However, cremation has been allowed (can. 1176) recently, often for economic reasons or concerns about ecology. Cremation for the purpose of denying the resurrection or to “scatter the ashes” is not permitted. Cremated remains must be buried in a mausoleum, columbarium or, of course, a cemetery.

When we contemplate the history of cemeteries, it is best to remember them as expressions of our faith and our faith community. After all, the dead are waiting, as our bedtime prayer says, for the Lord to “wake me to the morning light” of resurrected life.

Sources:; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; the 1983 Code of Canon Law;; and

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