Roman and Early Christian Burial Practices

In early Roman times, the bodies of the dead were traditionally cremated and their ashes were placed in carved urns or little altars, atop of which families could pour libations of wine and food to celebrate with the spirit of the dead. Romans built miniature cities, outside of the city walls for their dead. Outside of Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, a collection of sepulchres remains and serves as testimony to the various burial practices of the second and third century around the capital of the Roman empire. Here, an entire islet, the Isola Sacra, was dedicated to family shrines and individual tombs, built along a wide thoroughfare. Families constructed shrines that were used for multiple generations, while persons with less money sheltered the graves of their loved ones against the walls of these shrines. Bodies were incinerated and the ashes were kept in urns and altars within the shrines. In the first and second centuries of the Common Era, Romans began to preserve dead bodies intact, in full-size sarcophagi (from the Greek sarkophágos - adj. flesh eating, referring to the stone used for coffins thought to eat the flesh of a body), or in similar metal or plaster containers. Greater amounts of space became necessary for these larger burials. The inhabitants of Rome devised a relatively unique tradition for commemorating their dead in the later centuries of the Empire: underground burial networks, or catacombs, away from the city. According to Roman law, dead bodies could not be within two Roman miles (about 2960 meters) from the city walls, and so necropoles grew up, or rather under, the countryside. The bedrock of Rome is a soft and porous volcanic rock called tufa, through which Romans cut countless miles of tunnels, lined with niches for bodies, and larger chambers for the funeral feasts and for religious ceremonies for the dead. Families visited the shrines in the catacombs and celebrated meals at the tomb, to honor ancestors, to help the spirits feel comfortable in the afterlife, and to appease the spirits of the dead that could wreak havoc on the living. In the late Roman empire, funerary sculpture on sarcophagi served as a sort of eulogy in stone, a memorial of the status, position, and individualism of the deceased. The living demonstrated a concern for portraying the deceased in his adult prime, in his profession, or as a character in a mythological scene where the deceased played the role of an enduring and often heroic figure.

For Further Reading:
Peter Brown, "The Holy and the Grave (Ch. 1)" in The Cult of the Saints. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press (1981), 1-22.

Jás Elsner, "Art and Death (Ch. 6)" in Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998), 145-165.

Jocelyn Toynbee, "Funerary Rites and the Cult of the Dead (Ch. 3)" in Death and Burial in the Roman World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971, 43-72.