BURIAL RITES AND PRACTICES
The act of interring the dead and laying them to rest is an old practice dating from biblical times. When Abraham died, his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave at Machpelah, the burial place that he had bought from the Hittites to bury his wife Sarah (Gn. 23:2-20; 25:8-10). His own descendants, Isaac and Jacob, were later buried with him (see also 1 Sm. 31:13; 2 Sm. 2:5,6; 3:35; 1 Kgs. 11:43).
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus came and took His body, wrapped it in strips of linen with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, and laid Him in a new tomb (Jn. 19:40, 41). In Acts 7:58-8:2 we read about the burial of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.
During the apostolic age and the ages of persecution, the remains of the martyrs were gathered by believers and buried. At the death of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-c. 107), who had been sent to Rome to be devoured by beasts, his relics were sent to Antioch for burial. Speaking of the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (c. 69-c. 155), Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, writes, “And so we afterwards gathered up his bones, which were more valuable than precious stones and more to be esteemed than gold, and laid them in a suitable place” (Ecclesiastical History, 4.15.43).
As soon as the deceased dies, his next of kin closes his eyes and mouth. Then the body is washed (see Acts 9:36-40), a practice referred to by DIONYSIUS THE GREAT, bishop of Alexandria (d. 264): “The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. . . . And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments . . .” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.22.7,9).
Next, the body is anointed with spices and aromatic unguents, and wrapped in linen (Mt. 27:59; Mk. 15:46, Lk. 23:53; Jn. 19:40).
The burial service begins with the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving, and the prayer of incense. Psalm 50 is then read, and is followed by the intercession for the sick. After the prayer of incense to Paul, the Pauline Epistle (1 Cor. 15:1-23) is read, of which the last two verses are, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
Next comes the Trisagion. The priest reads the intercession of the Gospel, followed by the Gospel reading (Jn. 5:19-29) of which verse 21 says, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.”
The priest then says the three smaller intercessions. After the Creed, the intercession of the dormant is read, then a petition and the Lord’s Prayer. Finally the priest reads the absolution.
The final prayer said just before the tomb is closed contains the following petition: “We beseech Thee, our Lord God Almighty, Lover of man, on behalf of Thy servant [Name] who has relinquished his body, that Thou may graciously send Thy angel of mercy before him. . . . Bring him into the paradise of joy, into the bosoms of our early fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And, as we continue to offer prayers for him here below, he will remember us before Thee ” The priest then reads the absolution, the blessing, and the Lord’s Prayer.
Commemoration prayers are offered at certain intervals that, nowadays, are usually restricted to the third and fortieth day after death and on the anniversary day. In former times, however, these intervals were more frequent.
[See also: Funerary Customs; Mourning in Early Christian Times.]
- Gabriel V, Patriarch. Al-Tartib al-Taqsi (Ritual Order), pp. 131-49. Cairo, 1964.
- Safi ibn al-‘Assal, al-. Kitab al-Qawanin, chap. 22, pp. 177-80. Cairo, 1927.
- William Sulayman Qiladah. Kitab al-Disquliyyah, Ta‘alim al-Rusul (The Didascalia), chap. 34, pp. 433-34. Cairo, 1977.