THE earth is one vast burial ground. Even the chalk deposits favoured by the early cave dwellers are composed of countless millions of primitive forms of life deposited in the dark morning of creation. These caves made by the natural course of water percolating through the cracks and crannies, provided shelter for the living and a sepulture for the dead. Here flint was found in abundance, from which rude tools were shaped. A number of such caves are known to existsome of which are even inhabited to-day.
The excellent state of preservation in which so many of the remains are found, is due not only to the fact that subterranean work generally is less liable to disturbance than surface work, but the even temperature is also a great factor in the preservation of deposits.
Baring-Gould describes a custom at once practical and ingenious, which was adopted by the ancient Gauls and Britons for the disposal of refuse of various kinds.
Bottle-shaped shafts were cut in the chalk and everything that was not required was shot down the aperture, till the receptacle was full, when a tree, planted on the top, and another hole opened up in like manner. These shafts were used as common graves for slaves, and are found in France and also in the chalk downs of England. Several such pits were discovered in Nottingham--one containing a rusty slave-chain.
Little wonder that we find in the caves and catacombs an endless field for the investigation of burial customs, for not only do they contain remnants of the period at which they were first occupied, but of successive periods and peoples.
When one of these primitive homes ceased to be used by the living, it was at once appropriated for the dead. The old fear of ghosts caused the living to seek shelter elsewhere: to this day Kaffirs burn down the hut in which a death has taken place.
The alternative was to find some new abode for the corpse, and so reserve the caves for a more useful purpose.
This led to the construction of the Dolmen (Dol=a table, men=a stone, Celtic) which gives an adequate idea of the forms adopted--a rude imitation of the cave which had been deserted, built up of cairns or heaps of stones.
Later, earth burial became general, and the barrows or cumuli were commonly used. These were placed conveniently near to the villages or settlements, but sufficiently remote to avoid a dreaded proximity to the dead. Thus we trace both the origin of the tomb and the cemetery.
From the earliest times the barrow was regarded as sacred ground, and near it the pagan temple was erected. When we look at our country churches, surrounded by rows of grass-covered mounds, we see a type of the olden practice very little altered, indeed, for the Christian Church was often built on the actual foundations of the pagan temple standing guardian over the dead. The present custom of piling turf over the grave, though it may have some reason in allowing the disturbed ground to "settle," owes quite as much to the barrow formation.
The earliest burying grounds may be recognized by an irregular formation of grass-covered mounds, but must be distinguished from somewhat similar earthworks, which are of military origin.
Johnson mentions the well-known tumulus at Taplow in Buckinghamshire. The remains of a church were cleared away in 1833, when it was found in removing the masonry that its foundation passed through an ancient ditch, for it had been erected at the eastern end of an enclosed barrow. Further, it occupied high ground known as "bury fields." Fragments of pottery, British, Roman and Saxon, and well worked flints, had been collected near or from the graveyards. It was evident that the tumulus had been intentionally enclosed when the boundary of the churchyard was first fixed.
The same writer mentions the graveyard of a very early church at St. John's Point, Co. Down, Ireland, where numerous pagan graves were discovered, arranged in a semi-circle, within which was another ring of smaller graves, the common centre being marked by a stone pillar. This admirable arrangement modern cemeteries might do well to copy.
By arrangement with the owner of some property at Aston Upthorpe, members of the Reading University College recently made excavations and discovered Saxon interments in close connection with signs of the Roman occupation. Here they unearthed seventy-two coins, a bronze signet ring, an iron dagger and some spear-heads, together with numerous fragments of bronze and iron of uncertain era. There were also found several pieces of plain and decorated Samian ware, and coarse pottery. But the most important find was an undisturbed Saxon interment. The skeleton lay on its back, with its head to the south; on the right of the remains lay fragments of a bronze bowl and a bone comb. In a leather covered wooden case an iron sword, three feet and one inch in length, lay on the breast with the point towards the feet. A little above the head was an iron ring. A tinned-bronze stud was found beneath the left knee, which had probably decorated the shaft of the sword. There were also a pair of iron shears, and the remains of an iron buckle.
Very many such finds could be mentioned which are interesting as intimately connected with the study of the early practice of interments, but fascinating as they are, they lead too far from our subject, forming a separate study, on which a great deal has been written.
Much also has been written about the greatest of all earth's burial-places--the Pyramids of Egypt, in which the Pharaohs were laid. Yet no sketch, however slight, on the subject of funeral practices would be complete without a glance at these stupendous monuments of the dead. They still hold secrets which have foiled the patient and exhaustive labours of many archaeologists of various nationalities who have sought to unravel their mysteries.
Three large pyramids were constructed by the Egyptian kings of the Fourth Dynasty for the preservation of their royal remains.
The great Pyramid of Cheops which took twenty years to complete was the work of many thousand slaves, who tolled ceaselessly on its construction. It is supposed that the stones of which it is composed were dragged from the Nile to the site on a track prepared for the purpose, and that they were placed in position by means of inclined planes of sand.
Donnelly gives the measurements of the great Pyramid as 450 ft. in height and 746 ft. square. Some idea of its magnitude can be gathered from the fact that it covers between 13 and 14 acres of ground.
Most careful measurements have been taken of the passages and chambers in the interior, the proportions of which are held to have a symbolic significance.
A passage 49 ft. long and 11 ft. high leads to the sepulchre chamber. It is connected with other ways leading to various parts of the Pyramid.
It is supposed that the Pyramids in their original state were covered by slabs of a smooth shining white cement, and the apex probably gilded.
The Pyramids stand with their sides to the cardinal points, and are considered by the ancients as marking the centre of the earth.
Believing that the soul remains in the mummified body, early Egyptians took elaborate precautions to ensure the preservation of the remains of the dead, and the Pyramids were built to protect the kings from the much dreaded despoliation of the tomb. Several less important Pyramids near the ancient city of Memphis contained the bodies of other important Egyptians of rank. Here also the priests made sacrifices and held various rites in the interests of the dead.
Donnelly says, "There can be no doubt that the Pyramid was a developed and perfected mound, and that the present form of their common structure is to be found in Silsbury Hill (Avebury), and in the mounds of earth of Central America and the Mississippi Valley." The Silsbury Hill referred to is an artificial mound 170 ft. high, connected with ramparts, avenues, circular ditches and stone circles almost identical with those found in the Mississippi.
In the early days of Christianity when persecution was the lot of those who embraced the new faith, the Roman catacombs were used by the Christian community for the purposes of sanctuary and burial, for they well knew that the superstitious dread which the Romans had in common with the Jews for places of burial, rendered the labyrinths comparatively secure, where they might even meet to worship with a minimum risk of disaster.
That this was not always a safe harbour of refuge we know by the number of Christians who were actually martyred in the catacombs themselves.
Here in these underground vaults they buried their dead during the first four centuries of the Christian era.
It must not be supposed that this form of sepulture was used by the Christians only. The Jews who shared the Oriental custom of interment in subterranean chambers instead of earth burial, also used the catacombs.
The Jewish tombs are easily discovered by the symbols of the old dispensation, the Ark and the branched candlestick with which they are marked.
The tombs of the Martyrs were the first altars upon which the Christians solemnized the rites of their faith. So it was that when the bodies of those who had been put to death were removed from the impending plundering of the Saracens and Lombards in the eighth and ninth centuries, their relics were placed within the walls of the city (a privilege previously forbidden by Roman law), and churches were built over them. In this manner the tomb became the temple.
The practice of placing several altars in a Christian church, which some have supposed a pagan survival of the "Many altars to many Deities," is in reality a continuance of the primitive custom of celebrating Mass on the actual tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs.
When with the growth of the Faith, churches became scattered all over the world, the "sepulchrum" was adopted--a receptacle cut into the altar stone in which relics of the martyrs were deposited--a practice still continued in Roman Catholic churches throughout the world.
The more wealthy Christians held title to certain plots of land for burial purposes, which later they shared with those of their faith. Thus, till such time as the Church could establish her claim to consideration, the common burial-places were extensions of these private properties.
These burial grounds were much like our own, they were surrounded by hedges or stone walls, cypress trees were planted and memorial chapels or sarcophagi were built on the spot. The dead were from quite early periods interred in graves dug from the surface of the ground, and as many as ten bodies laid one above the other, each separated only from the next by a slab of stone. Such a method would not be tolerated by the Jews who are forbidden to place one body above another, either on shelves, in the sepulchre, or in the ground.
From this period the catacombs were guarded and preserved, and many of the mural paintings were executed, which are still in a wonderful state of preservation, and throw some valuable light upon many of the rites and ceremonies of the early Christians.
Frothingham says, "A considerable amount of the subterranean art was produced, the catacombs still being used for the burial of the dead as well as the veneration of the relics of the martyrs."
The fourth century brought forth the public use of Christian art during an age of mutual toleration under Constantine.
In order to give some idea of the length and many ramifications of the catacombs, he adds that "if they were continued in a line, it is computed that they would stretch the entire length of the Italian Peninsula, but they do not extend farther than the third milestone from the city of Rome. In these labyrinths the graves are placed one above the other like bunks in a cabin, and in each reposed one or more bodies. Here and there the sequence is broken by a cross passage that leads to a small chamber, the sides of which are perforated with graves. These were originally closed by slabs of marble or tiles." He continues:
"This is about the only distinction between the graves of the rich and those of the poor, of the slave from his master. Those who desired to distinguish it from those around, either had the name engraved upon the slab or rudely scratched with the sharp end of a trowel in the mortar by which the slab was secured, or else a bit of ornamental glass or a ring or coin was impressed in the mortar whilst it was still wet."
It is not generally realized that a great number of catacombs exist other than those of Rome.
Burials in catacombs took place generally where disused quarries or excavations presented the opportunity, or where the soil was of a nature to render mining easy.
Those of Paris are of considerable interest. They were formerly quarries which largely undermined the city.
As the capital extended its boundaries many of the once outlying cemeteries were surrounded, and in such cases the bodies they contained were exhumed and reburied in the catacombs, which it is estimated contain the remains of at least three million people.
In the year 1784 the old burial-place of the "Innocents" was cleared by order of the Council of State, and the quarries which undermined the city and from which much of the early building material had been obtained, were cleared to receive the bones disturbed from the city cemeteries. A shaft was sunk in the neighbourhood of a house known as "La Tombe Issiore" from a famous robber, who with a dangerous gang once infested the district.
The cavities were propped up and enlarged and recesses provided to receive the remains of thedead. These catacombs were consecrated by the Archbishop of Paris in 1786. The work of transferring the bones was done at night. They were reverently removed in funeral cars covered with a pall, and followed by priests chanting the service of the dead.
In contrast with this respectful treatment it is somewhat amusing to learn that at the end of their journey the bones were shot unceremoniously down the shaft into the depths below.
The old tombstones were arranged in some sort of order in an adjoining field.
During these removals, the lead coffin containing the remains of the notorious Madame Pompadour was brought to light, but it was destroyed three years later during the Revolution Of 1789.
The catacombs of Paris contain the bodies of those who perished in the various revolutions and massacres, for which the "Gay City" has been notorious.
A certain Monsieur Hericast de Thury, an architect, arranged the relics in a systematic way. He also provided proper access to the catacombs by means of steps, and further helped matters by drawing off the considerable volume of water that had accumulated there.
In the spirit of the Grotto the skulls and larger bones were set out in geometrical and patterned effect.
Chapels were later arranged in memory of those who had fallen victims in the various social upheavals, which received such names as "Tombeaux des Victime," "Tombeau de la Revolution," etc.