6. Of the Cemeteries of the Early Christians
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XX. Funeral Rites and Ceremonies
6. Of the Cemeteries of the Early Christians
By far the greater number of the primitive Christians were buried in subterranean sepulchres. As, during the first three hundred years the sword of persecution was constantly impending over their heads, and dear-bought experience taught them, that their only safety lay either in withdrawing to uninhabited deserts, or sheltering themselves in inaccessible hiding holes, multitudes who preferred the latter alternative, died, and were interred in their places of retreat. These served at once as their home and their burying place; and, as it was natural that they should wish to have the bodies of their departed brethren conveyed to the same peaceful and inviolable sanctuaries, it became, first from necessity, and afterwards from choice, the approved and invariable practice of the Christians to deposit their dead in deep and obscure caverns. These, owing to the vast multitudes who fell simultaneously in times of persecution, and to whom, except in some few cases, the rites of burial were not refused, evidently required to be of no ordinary magnitude; and accordingly, – at what time is uncertain, but at an early period, – the charity of some wealthy friends of their body put them in possession of cemeteries which remained ever after the common property of the believers. Among the monuments of christian antiquity, none are more singular than these abodes of the dead; and one feels at a loss whether most to admire their prodigious extent, the laborious industry that provided them, or the interesting recollections with which they are associated. Like the Moorish caves in Spain, they were generally excavated at the base of a lonely hill, and the entrance so carefully concealed that no aperture appeared, and no traces were discernible – except by an experienced eye – of the ground having been penetrated, and of the vast dungeons that had been hollowed underneath. The descent was made by a ladder, the foot of which stood in a broad and spacious pathway, which extended like a street along the whole length of the place. This principal entrance opened, at intervals into smaller passages, which again led into a variety of chambers; and on either side of them were several rows of niches, pierced in the wall, serving as catacombs, and filled with coffins. The chambers were painted, for the most part like the churches, with passages of history from the Old and New Testaments. In the centre of the largest street was an open square, large and commodious as a market-place, in which those who took refuge there, in those troublous times, were wont to congregate for worship; and the comfort of which, as a place of abode, was greatly promoted by the liberal use which the Christians made of spices and perfumes on their dead. In the more distant of these cemeteries, whose remoteness rendered them less liable to be disturbed, there were small apertures left in the surface of the ground, through which a dim twilight was admitted; but the others, where these were closed, were absolutely dark, and except by the aid of lights, impassable; so that, on any sudden surprise, the refugees had only to extinguish their lamps to insure their safety from the invasion of their enemies. The depth of these vaults was sometimes so great, that two or three stories were ranged one above another; and the whole aspect conveyed the impression of a city under ground.
Many of them, however, never came to the knowledge of the enemy; and one was only discovered about three miles from Rome, so late as the end of the sixteenth century, the size and various apartments of which excited universal astonishment. Numbers still remain, bearing the names of their respective founders, and affording, by their inscriptions, and the monuments of antiquity found in them, the most satisfactory proofs of their having been used as hiding-places by the Christians. From their habit of courting the obscurity of the catacombs, the Christians obtained, from their heathen contemporaries, the name of the "Light-hating People;" and to their religious familiarity with these abodes of the dead, the reflecting reader will be disposed lo trace that general desire for martyrdom which, in the second and third centuries, astonished the authorities of Rome, and crowded the tribunals of all the provinces. Strange as that insensibility to suffering and death may seem, its origin is naturally to be imputed to the strong influence of place, operating on the minds of men who, by daily contact with the venerable remains of their ancestors, had overcome the instinctive dread of dissolution, and in whom vivid impressions of religion, and the hope of immortal glory, together with the extraordinary estimation in which the memory of the martyrs was held, had created a passionate longing for similar honors.