Thursday, 8 December 2011

Burials in Churches

There is a very real time line for burials inside Churches and we acknowledge that Roman Law would not traditionally allow either burial or cremation within the city. It is fair to say that there was a fear of ghosts in the ancient world and a loathing of close proximity with the dead. In succeeding years and with the development of Christianity the wish to separate the living and the dead weakened as cremation moved to burial as a means of disposing of the body. We begin to associate Churches with a Royal burial or with the burial of a saint on the site.

A dark faith
© Godric Godricson
 Bishops and Martyrs began to be buried in the Churches, despite earlier disapproval. The cult of bones becomes not only prevalent but actually acceptable and in a strange manner the adherents of Christ became associated in what may be described as a 'death cult' whereby a faith based in hope, light and Resurrection became a faith associated with a darkness and death. It seems that many people wanted to be buried in close proximity with the 'Holy' and the 'Royal'. We see an early Christian dislike of cremation as the Resurrection required the bones to be intact rather than destroyed. It is also the case that the Roman practice of public cremation seemed disrespectful to the departed and the ferocity of the hot fire appeared harsh for the remains of the faithful departed.  The tradition of burying the occasional Holy person or the Royal Martyr became so entrenched that rich and powerful people started to be buried inside the Church. In fact, anyone with money wanted to be buried inside the Church and the rate of burials rose in the post reformation period. Bodies were buried in cloister, Church or chancel and the numbers of burials on Church sites increased. Rather than an occasional burial for a specific occasion we find that noble families actively developed their traditional vaults under the Church and this became a  practice hallowed by tradition. Anyone with money could now pay for the privilege of being buried inside the Church.

The association of the dead with Christian piety is an early association and the veneration of the relics of the saints is identified as early as the second century. In England,  the veneration of the bones of Saint Swithin is a good example of the manner in which bones and relics are acceptable and even desirable. The bones of the saints are needed in society and seen as possessing something of the actual power of the saint. In the year 971, we find that Swithin’s body was transferred from the open air to the inside of Winchester Cathedral and from that point we find his bones venerated, subdivided and glorified inside the environment of the Church building. In such an environment, it is unsurprising that Christians came to accept the dead and their remains in such  close proximity  to the living in worship and prayer.

Discarded stone coffin
© Godric Godricson
 Monuments to record the famous and the ignoble dead become evident around the UK.  Cathedrals and chapels contain both the Holy and Royal burial as well as the nobleman and his family all in search of immortality. Flagstone floors weren't common in rural churches until the 16th and 17th  Centuries and in medieval times church floors might be just compacted earth or laid with small tiles.  Raising these floors to effect a burial was relatively easy and this proved tempting and we can imagine the floor being in a state of constant upheaval. Burials move rapidly from the porch towards the East end and we perceive that the lids of stone coffins are set into the floor until they become a major part of the floor itself. The stone coffins of the 12th Century  were usually hewn out of a solid block of local sedimentary stone with a drainage hole in the base. The coffin lid, often of great thickness, was fashioned out of a slab.  The photograph to the left is a stone coffin in King's Lynn and presumable  was fixed into the floor until discarded at some point along with the disarticulated skeleton.

The research of intramural inhumation or burial in Churches is an increasingly specialist topic and well researched. This research has indicated that churches charged a fee for burials inside Churches and that this became for some parishes a major part of their income.

Chancel floors around England show signs of floor slabs even if that has been re-sited over the years. There may be several slabs set into the floor and we begin to see the names of those buried beneath as people cease to be anonymous individuals. Our ancestors become real people with names and with identities. It was also customary for the priest of the parish to be buried in the Chancel along with the Lord of the Manor.

In the march of humanity towards the East end and the holiest part of the Church, we begin to find  burials placed closest to the main altar or set apart in private chapels within the church. We find extravagantly decorated chapels that reflect the increase of wealth in society and we see the dead being placed above ground in special chapels and underground in specially built crypts and vaults.

Dance of Death


 The practice of burying inside a Church was carried to such an extent that many churches became full of bodies and the Church made money from the burying of the dead inside the Church. In the urban setting and sometimes without access to a cemetery, the Church became overwhelmed with bodies decomposing in graves resting just below the floor or resting in side chapels or stored in ossuary. It is difficult for the 21st Century mind to imagine such an horrific situation developing or  for such a position becoming normal. Such places were said to have been the cause of outbreaks of plague and pestilence although the effects of such intensive burials cannot always be clearly assessed. For an idea of the extent of such practices see a brief explanation of the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris.

Many pre-reformation monuments have been found in 19th century enlargements to Churches although it is clear that many monuments and stone coffins had already been re-used by earlier masons for ordinary building purposes. So much for any claim on immortality.

Although Christianity had grown up cheek by jowl in close proximity to the dead we see that by the middle of the 19th century, the practice of burial inside churches was discontinued for reasons of hygiene. Some memorial stones continued to be laid and burials could be arranged under very strict licence.

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