This weekend, in the United States, we mark Memorial Day, an observance that honors the dead, especially those who served and died defending the country in wartime.
How did the ancients keep this holiday? Well, they didn’t, of course, since it’s a nineteenth-century innovation of American origin.
But there’s a sense in which the early Christians kept every day as a “Memorial Day.” They called the Eucharist an anamnesis, a “memorial” of Christ’s death — a God-willed remembrance through which Jesus became really present.
And they marked not only Christ’s death, but also the days of the saints who died in Christ, especially the martyrs. Very early, the Church’s calendar began to teem with feast days honoring the dead, and the living Christians gained some notoriety for their treatment of the deceased.
Cremation had long been the norm in most societies of the pagan Roman Empire. Jews, however, followed the custom of burying their dead. Christians did, too, and looked upon “Christian burial” as an expression of their faith in the resurrection of the body. Such an oddity was this practice that, in many locales, it earned Christians a derogatory nickname: “The Diggers.”
Yet the pagans also honored their dead, often with lavish funeral rites. One common component, in Greek and Roman cultures, was the funeral banquet. The empire had many laws regulating the practice of funerary societies, clubs that would guarantee a decent send-off and a festive memorial for their members. Benign local officials sometimes chose to look upon Christian churches as funerary societies, since they seemed to fulfill the same purpose.
Roman families actually hosted severals banquets to honor their recently deceased: one at the gravesite the day of the funeral; the second at the end of nine days of mourning; others on specified religious holidays; and one major banquet on the birthday of the deceased. (See the excellent discussion of these meals in Dennis E. Smith’s From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. It’s a fascinating study, in spite of its very low-church conclusions.)
Christians adapted the ancient rites as their own — or saw no reason to abandon them completely after conversion. Like the former pagans themselves, the pagan customs were thoroughly converted — baptized, as it were, purified and rendered a new creation. One major Christian difference was in giving bodies a decent burial. This is abundantly evident in the recently discovered catacombs in Rome, where hundreds of corpses were found well dressed and placed with reverence.
Christians also kept the custom of funerary banquets. In some places they may have taken the form of an “Agape,” or love-feast, as we find recorded in the New Testament Letter of St. Jude. Another possibility is that the funeral Eucharist was observed as part of a fuller banquet, a practice we find in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11). In some churches the funeral was certainly marked by a Eucharist at the gravesite. We have a very early record of the graveside practice, from the mid-second century, in the apocryphal Acts of John. These funerary banquets or Masses may also be the meals we find depicted on the walls of the catacombs.
By the fourth century, the gravesite celebrations — sometimes called refrigeria, or “refreshments” — had gained a reputation in some quarters as raucous, drunken affairs. This was especially true of the festivals of popular saints, where the temptation was strong to knock one back for every glass poured out as a libation. When St. Monica moved from North Africa to Italy to be near her son Augustine, the Milanese bishop, St. Ambrose, discouraged her from observing the refrigeria at all — even in a pious way.
The great liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann noted that the earliest recorded graveside Masses were offered on the third day after the Christian’s burial. The third day — what a stunning symbolic fulfillment of our life in Christ — how beautiful, how poignant, how utterly incarnational and sacramental! Jungmann sees this custom as the ancestor of our current practice of votive Masses for the dead. And he notes times and places where various churches traditionally observed the seventh day, the ninth, the thirtieth, and the fortieth as well.
Some people see the gorgeous farewell passage in Augustine’s Confessions as a turning point in ancient attitudes. There, Monica, who had once avidly marked the refrigerium, now asks her son to remember her in the Mass. It is, they say, at this moment in history that popular sentiment had begun to turn from the rowdy festival to the solemn Mass. That’s a nice thought, but it seems contradicted by later practice, as Christians continued to mark festive banquets at gravesites throughout the era of the Fathers.
While putting down these thoughts, I had a “Christmas Carol” moment straight out of Dickens. Googling around, I landed on one of the many lovely sites devoted to the Roman catacombs. There I learned that, in the area called St. Miltiades in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, there is a “Crypt of Refrigerium.” It is very near, the website told me, to the so-called “Cubicle of Aquilina,” which bears the inscription “Aquilina dormit in pace” (Aquilina sleeps in peace). May that inscription one day be true of me, and may it this day be true of my ancestors, whom I remember, as the holiday requires.