Respectful attitude towards the bodies of the dead is characteristic of many nations at all times. First, this is a way to show respect and love for the deceased. Unlike Egyptians or Romans, idolizing their pharaohs and heroes, early Christians only revered the immortal spirit. From the first centuries, the burial rite of Christians has been based on the words of the Apostle Paul: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? <…> Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:15,19).
Thus, the bodies of the departed, destined for the glory of Resurrecting in the flesh after the Second Coming, were prepared with due honors for a new life. Then, with prayer and psalmody, they were buried in the ground or in caves, catacombs, and tombs. Christians carried many burial traditions through centuries, from antiquity to the present day. Let us try to trace how some elements of preparing bodies of the dead appeared and what symbolic meaning they acquired over time.
The Christian tradition of burial is based on the Jewish practice. However, it does not completely repeat it. The main difference is the absence of despair and excessive sorrow, characteristic of the Jews. For those who believe in Christ and the general Resurrection of the dead after the Second Coming, the death of the body is only temporary sleep before a new life.
Based on this conviction, the Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation, which is characteristic of Eastern paganism. Christians of the first centuries, living in brotherly love and inspired by miracles from the relics of martyrs and other saints, perceived one another as “potential saints”, through whose remains the Lord may show forth His Glory. Showing disrespect for the body of a deceased person meant disrespect towards God Himself. Although the further fate of departed souls does not depend on the method of burial, our attitude towards the bodies of our loved ones is undoubtedly important before God. This is why Christians treat the bodies of the deceased with honors and prayer, preparing them for the journey to meet the Lord.
Christians adopted some of the Roman burial traditions, although with their own spiritual rethinking.
Just as it is done today, the bodies of the deceased were prepared for burial by their relatives. In the case with martyrs, however, anyone could become such a “relative”, and all Christians strove to serve in their burial to the best of their ability.
Immediately after the death of a person, his mouth and eyes were closed. Then his body was washed and smeared with fragrant ointments, less often – embalmed. This was done not only to protect the body from premature decomposition, but also to express love for the deceased. This tradition was inspired by the example of Christ praising the deed of a pious woman who poured costly ointment on His head, preparing Him for burial (Matt. 26:10-12). Subsequently, the washing of the body acquired a particular Christian symbolism – the spiritual cleansing of the deceased.
The washed and anointed body was dressed in white linen clothes. In the 4th century, St John Chrysostom interprets them as garments of immortality and incorruption. Exceptions to this rule were bishops and presbyters, who were buried in church clothes, and martyrs, who were dressed in precious fabrics. Some wealthy people gave their clothes to the poor. Sometimes, if it was necessary to preserve a body from decomposition for an extended time. The body was then covered with lime over a thin shroud and wrapped in a coarse cloth. The modern “echo” of these white robes is the white shroud, used to cover the bodies of the deceased in the coffin before burial.
After the 4th century, the dressed body in a coffin began to be placed in a front room. The first coffins looked like arks. Coffins were surrounded with lamps, symbolizing the glory and the transition of the deceased to the kingdom of light. Before the advent of coffins, bodies were placed on special stretchers without a lid.
In the 4th century, Christians adopted from the Romans the tradition of decorating heads of the deceased with a flower wreath, which the pagans used to express adoration. Later, this tradition acquired a Christian meaning, victory and reward awaiting the deceased in heaven for their earthly deeds. Soon, Christians began to portray images of Christ on their wreaths. A paper or fabric wreath with sacred images is still placed on the foreheads of the deceased.
In contrast with the modern practice, it was customary to remove all decorations from the dead before burial, including crosses. For example, St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) describing the burial of his sister Venerable Macrina, wrote that her friend Vastiana took Macrina’s cross, while he himself kept her ring for himself. This was probably motivated by the family’s desire to save something as a keepsake.
Sometimes important personal items of the deceased were buried together with the body. In the case with Christian martyrs, these included instruments of torture, flasks and sponges filled with their blood, as well as medals, bay leaves, crosses, and even the Gospel. Today, many Christians are buried with a cross in their hand as a sign of their faith in the Savior during their lifetime and their hope in His mercy after death.
In cases where a Christian died while under penance, a prayer of absolution was read over him resolving him from church anathema. If a person died before the prayer of absolution was read over him, then a scroll with the text of the prayer was rolled up and placed into his hand, as evidence of the forgiveness of the Church and permission to commemorate him at the proskomedia.
Of course, it is the soul of a deceased Christian that comes before God, while his body may not necessarily be properly buried. For example, there are cases when nothing was left of the bodies of certain martyrs, while some saints personally asked to be buried without any honors, considering themselves unworthy. However, our attitude towards the bodies of the deceased is important, both to God and to ourselves. Through these actions, we can express our love to the deceased and release them in peace into eternal life. Observing this centuries-old tradition in relation to our loved ones, we hope that the Lord will not leave our own bodies without due preparation.
I’m not sure about that “all people” and at “all times” respecting the bodies of the dead. You should check what passed as the funerary practice of the Persians, as Zoroastrians did. They left the bodies of the dead out for scavengers, crows and vultures, to eat the flesh. I cannot countenance this practice as respectful of the dead.
Best Wishes, Mark