The word “cemetery” comes to us 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 means “a sleeping place.” Makes one remember that 18th-century childhood prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
That’s what we do when we visit our beloved dead in the cemetery: ask the Lord to watch over their sleep and keep them safe for the resurrection of the dead on the last day.
Cemeteries certainly predate Christianity. Ancient Jews never used cremation — which has become more common today for financial and ecological reasons. The burial of Sarah, wife of Abraham (Genesis, chapter 23), is the first one recorded in the Bible. Abraham was later buried with Sarah, in the same cave, called the Cave of Machpelah (meaning “cave of the double tombs), facing Hebron. Joseph, who had gone down to Egypt, was embalmed and carried back to this tomb when the Israelites returned to the Promised Land (Jos 24:32). Burial in caves or tombs outside city walls continued in the time of Jesus.
The burial of groups of Christians who were 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 members.
For Christians, burials near fellow Christians soon developed. 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. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes the phrase sibi et libertis et misericordiæ — “for himself, his freedmen and for mercy” (charity) — was used to legally establish these first communal cemeteries.
Various types of cemeteries followed — from the ossuaries (bone boxes) found around Jerusalem to the catacombs of ancient Rome to communal burial plots. No standard form of Christian burial developed in the first millennium. However, since Roman law forbade burial within the city walls, many burials took place along major roads. This was also where martyrs died and were buried, so churches soon marked these holy sites.
What became common was burial near these churches that stood beside (or over) the graves of martyrs. Masses celebrated at these holy sites were joyful events, not events to mourn a martyr’s death but emphasizing the triumph of Christ and the communion of saints. Other Christians wished to be buried near these sites and, once laws about burial within city walls were relaxed, cemeteries around all churches became increasingly common.
Most Catholics of the past 1,000 years were buried in church yards or cemeteries set aside by a local church.
The cemeteries of Europe developed certain styles that we now see in our modern cemeteries, especially those not situated in a church yard. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the Saxons of England set up large crosses in burial areas, marking them as gathering sites for Christians. During western France’s Moyen-Age (Middle Ages), large lanterns, sometimes 30 feet high and resembling a lighthouse, were placed in cemeteries. These lanterne des morts, or “lanterns of the dead,” looked similar to bell towers that adorn some modern cemeteries. Finally, stand-alone cemeteries often contained a mortuary chapel, where prayers for the dead were offered and, during winter months, bodies were stored for spring burial.
When we visit cemeteries during this Decoration/Memorial Day, we should take a moment to contemplate the history of cemeteries, and how they serve as expressions of our faith and our faith community. After all, the dead rest beneath the cross of Christ who was raised from the dead. There they await, as several versions of our bedtime prayer say, 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; prayerfoundation.org; wikipedia.org; etymonline.com; and sacred-destinations.com.