When their eyes closed in death

Recently, I visited two ancient burial places. It was only until a while later that I reflected on the diverging philosophies behind them. (Warning: Readers may find the next paragraph disturbing. Proceed with caution.)

Stone seat
Stone seat

The first location was in a 16th century convent on the island of Ischia  (off the coast of Naples). When a nun died, her body was placed on a stone seat (see picture). The body was left to decompose slowly as body fluids were collected in a container placed below the seat. When only bones were left, these were moved to an ossuary where all the skeletons of the deceased nuns were heaped together .

Why, oh, why did they do that? Translating from the visitor’s guide:

This macabre practice found its basis in the necessity of demonstrating to the utmost level the uselessness of the body as a mere container for the spirit. The refusal of an individual burial further emphasised this conviction.

Moving on to the second burial site, the catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome (sorry, no photos). These, according to our tour guide, are the oldest catacombs in Rome and were in use between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Unlike other catacombs in modern-day Turkey, the Roman ones were not used as dwelling places. Believers would bury their dead there, and occasionally gather for prayer there.

Necropolis in Ostia Antica
Necropolis in Ostia Antica

At the time, the prevailing way of disposing of a corpse was cremation, and the urns containing the ashes would be placed in niches (see right) in the town’s necropolis.

The Christians didn’t think that they should follow the pagan way. They would wrap their dead in a shroud and place the body in the earth, in a horizontal position. They invented a new word for this strange burial place of theirs—the word we translate ‘cemetery’. The Greek word translates roughly as ‘a sleeping place’.

If I had to choose, I think I’d have chosen to live in the 2nd century. I love it that those early Christians sought to be distinct from their surrounding culture both in life and in death. I love that they weren’t influenced by pagan dualistic philosophies (spirit=good, body=bad) like those nuns centuries later. I hope that I too can find inoffensive and yet inescapable ways of demonstrating my faith in a God who raises the dead.

One thought on “When their eyes closed in death

  1. Very interesting post Nelima. Sounds like a very interesting visit to both places. I plan to use the macabre illustration sometime in the future! I hope to see some more good stuff from you soon!

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