The Christian Burial

church cemetery

There is a scene so common in movies that I am sure you have all seen it countless times. Someone of importance has just died, and one of those left behind provides reassurance to those close to the deceased by promising that the deceased will receive "a Christian burial." I can't remember the name of the film I just saw this in, but it was a Western. And like I said, this scene has been in so many films that we've all seen it repeatedly.

Given that humans have been burying their dead for some time and that this practice began long before Christianity, one might wonder what a Christian burial is and how it differs from other sorts of burials. What makes a Christian burial different from all the others?

Fortunately, the answer seems to be fairly straightforward. A Christian burial is one that utilizes a set of specifically Christian burial rites. Not surprisingly, these burial rites have varied throughout history. Their application during the Middle Ages would have looked different in many ways from their modern application. Still, both might be recognizable as Christian in a way that the burial practices of other religious (or secular) traditions would not.

The movie I mentioned above did not depict the burial, but we can assume many things about it. It may have involved re-dressing the body and almost certainly involved placing the body in a coffin prior to burial. A grave would have been dug in a designated area. People who knew the deceased would have gathered, and a member of the clergy would have uttered Christian magic incantations. In a small town in the old West, this probably would have been a much less formal affair than anything we might have seen in a large European city in the Middle Ages.

I realize this is an oversimplification and that things like burial in "consecrated" ground are also important, but it seems to me that the critical difference between a Christian burial and any other burial probably comes down to the nature of the magic incantations uttered over the body. A Christian burial needs to include Christian spells. If it doesn't, it would be hard to consider it a Christian burial. And so reassuring those close to the deceased that the person they lost will receive a Christian burial are pledging that the correct spells will be cast over the deceased.

What is all this talk of magic, incantations, and spells? Am I trying to disparage ritual and prayer? Well, yes. It is about time that Christians realize that what they refer to as prayer does not deserve any higher status than what they would ascribe to sorcery or witchcraft. Praying to a "god" for favors amounts to magic. People who do this believe in magic. Their clergy are operating a level similar to that of witchdoctors. This has been obvious to atheists for some time even though most of us have been too polite (or fearful) to point it out. Perhaps it is time for that to change.