CEMETERY

I. Origin – II. Typology – III. Development and organization of cemeteries – IV. Archaeological research. In the ancient world the use of this word coemeterium, koimhth,rion to mean a place of burial of the dead was proper to and characteristic of Jews and Christians. That it was alien to the pagans is shown by the very rare literary texts in which it means a bedroom, or by the circumlocution used in pagan documents to describe Christian burial-grounds: the so-called cemeteries ta. kalou,mena koimhth,ria Euseb., HE VII, 11,10 and 13. But in early Christian literature the term is customary and its etymology, from koima,w, to go to sleep, expressing faith in the resurrection of the dead as the certain waking from sleep, is often commented on see, e.g., John Chrys., PG 49, 393. Various pagan poets also compare death to sleep, and sleep is symbolized in the decorations of some funeral monuments, but with no hint of the temporariness of this repose, which is obvious in the word dormitory. The early Christians expressed the same concept in the other frequent term depositio, a provisional depositary for the corpse awaiting restoration. Also, cemetery was not the only word for a Christian burial place. In Africa the common Roman term area, or accubitorium, synonymous with cemetery, was used. At Rome and in the West generally, coemeterium almost always meant the whole burial ground, whereas in Greece and Asia Minor it could mean the individual tomb. In regions where the type of ground made it possible, there were also underground Christian necropolises, now usually called catacombs. This name, first found at Naples in the 9th c., originally belonged to a single Roman Christian cemetery on the Via Appia in the place called ad catacumbas, it seems because of a natural depression that can still be noted between the circus of Maxentius and the present basilica of St. Sebastiano. The extension of the term catacomb to all Christian underground cemeteries took place esp. in the 16th and 17th c., when they were gradually rediscovered, whereas the galleries of St. Sebastiano had been accessible all through the Middle Ages. At the same time the strange belief began to spread that the catacombs had been the Christian communities’ place of worship, of organization and even living place in the early centuries, when they were forced to hide by persecution. Some literary documents, such as the imperial prohibition against entering the cemeteries Acta proconsularia S. Cypriani 3: PL 3, 1498 or references to popes living in them Duchesne LP I, 161, 207, 227, 305-306 obviously meaning the attached sanctuaries above them misled famous scholars of the past, and even today the legend is firmly rooted in the popular mind. Even without this fascination, the catacombs and early Christian funerary monuments in general are among the most important and often unique sources for our knowledge of the hierarchy, organization, beliefs, private life and public life of the primitive Christian communities.

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