05 February 2015

Burial Traditions And Superstitions

Burial Traditions And Superstitions

There are specific rules for burial in churchyards that date back many centuries. Occasionally, limitations of space may override this general principle, but only as an exception to a very old custom.

For example, there is a cemetery at Charvaise belonging to the earliest iron age, and containing more than seventy graves. All but two or three were so oriented that the head lay at the west end.

It would seem that orientation of the body is not primarily of Christian origins, but a relic of the rites of the early sun-worshippers. We see the same practice in the orientation of Christian churches that governed the erection also of their pagan temples, the altar in each case arranged in relation to the rising sun ... facing due east.

We may connect the matter even more closely than this, for many churches are built, not only in the eastward direction, but towards that point in the east from which the sun would rise on the feast day of the Saint to which the particutar church is dedicated. 

In the sense that "Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfil the law of the Prophets" according to NT scriptures, we will find this and many other pagan beliefs carried forward as a Christian practice - which probably contained the germ of some far-reaching truth. "Infinitely older than the Church everywhere," as St. Thomas a Kempis says of the Cross as well.

To the Christian the burial of bodies with their faces to the East is the outcome of the belief not only of a resurrection of the body, but also that from the East shall come the final summons to Judgment. Hence in Wales, for example, the east wind is known as the "wind of the dead man's feet." We find other funerary customs dictated by this doctrine, such as the burial in an upright or in a kneeling position, even upside down in view of the supposed upheaval at the last day.

The second interesting point to note in the churchyard is, that while south, east and west of the church - the gravestones are packed as closely as space will allow - on the north very often no headstones are to be seen. 

In some cases we may find that additions to the structure of the church have been made on this side only, for the simple reason that there were no graves to disturb, leaving the ground free for building operations and future expansion. Why is this? 

If you look carefully on the north side, you may solve the problem, for one or two stone labels overgrown with weeds, grass, and moss may have escaped your attention, and the village gossip will gladly tell you who lies buried there, isolated from the rest of the little community ... a half-forgotten tale of blood and crime, or maybe of suicide. Here, then, they bury their outcasts, the murderer on the north, and the victim(s) in a place of honour ... to the east, west or south.

In order to understand the matter, we must know that the north or "left-hand side" of the altar which is, of course, in the chancel at the east end of the church, is known as the "Gospel side," whilst the "right-hand side" or south side of the altar is called the "Epistle side." In the Roman Catholic church the Epistle is read on the south, the Epistle side of the altar, and the Gospel at the north, the Gospel side of the alter.

Before the Reformation, many countries conformed to this Roman Catholic practice. The underlying idea of this is that the Gospel was preached to "call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Hence the side from which the Gospel is read was delegated to those who, having committed crimes, were in greater need of salvation, and those so buried were said to be "out of sanctuary."

If it is thought that this treatment of the social outcast was too severe, what would be said of the earlier custom which denied him even so favoured a position? Suicides and Murderers were separated from the rest. The body of the suicide has in all times been subject to some sort of punishment measures.

Just a thought ... 

~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.

Information taken from "Funeral Customs" by Bertram S. Puckle [1926]