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Necropolis

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Christians gradually began to change the social function of the cemetery. Romans had always treated tombs as private places for families, not for rituals in which bones were passed between congregants to be fondled and kissed. A place of private reflection had become one of communal celebration, and as the cemetery became a new destination for pilgrims, massive shrines and edifices soon rivaled the cities themselves. This practice began in North African cities like Tébessa in modern-day Algeria, where the bishop Alexander built up the tomb of St. Crispina, complete with a pilgrim’s path 150 meters long flanked by arcades and courtyards. When Paulinus was first installed as bishop in the southern Italian city of Nola around 409, he quickly moved to cement his power through expanding the tomb of the local icon, St. Felix. Felix’s tomb was located well outside the city limits, but Paulinus nonetheless turned it into a vast complex, even ordering the destruction of two huts when their owners refused to move. With its triple archways and wide porticoes, travelers on the way to Nola often confused Felix’s tomb with the city itself.

Alexander and Paulinus were not alone. Throughout early Christendom, bishops consolidated power around the tomb. The cemetery where St. Peter was buried was well outside of Rome’s city walls in a distant plot of land named Vatican Hill. But it was here, not in the city itself, that his followers built his basilica. The religious power base—in Tébessa, Nola, Rome, and elsewhere—had shifted to the periphery, creating an imbalance that could not last. One way or another, the saint would have to come inside the city.

In the French city of Arras, the bishop Vaast asked to be buried outside of the city per the Roman tradition. But upon his death in 540, his body miraculously became so heavy it could not be lifted; when the archpriest asked the corpse if it would rather be carried to the cathedral’s altar, it suddenly became light as a feather. Alternately, if you could not bring the saint to the city, you brought the city to the saint: Pope Leo IV began an expansion of Rome’s walls around 847 to include old St. Peter’s Basilica, and what had once been a peripheral cemetery was now the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was one thing to enshrine the body of the saint in the cathedral, but the Christian city also had to accommodate the worshipful deceased. “The martyrs protect us while we live in our bodies and take care of us after we have left our bodies,” Maximus of Turin explained. “That is why our ancestors took care to place our bodies near the bones of martyrs.” The importance of being buried next to a saint’s relics soon meant that cemeteries were being moved within city walls. The Roman settlement Venta Belgarum in southeastern England established its graveyards four hundred meters outside the city walls, but after it was reconstituted as the city of Winchester in the eighth century, all burials took place on the grounds of the central cathedral. By then the necessity of a Christian burial in consecrated ground was firmly established. Nobility and the clergy were buried inside the church itself, and those who could afford it bought naves or vaults under the church. The graveyard itself was used for commoners; communal pits were left open until their quotas had been filled.

The cemetery attached to the church represented the end of a cycle that began with baptism—one’s life began at the altar and ended only a few feet away. Chateaubriand, remembering his own parish church as a child, described how, “a Christian could not reach the church except by traversing the region of tombstones: it is through death that we arrive in God’s presence.” Burials outside the city came to be seen as utterly backward; a French historian cited in 1598 that for pagans, “It made no difference at all where one buried the dead, whether the land was sacred or profane.”

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About the Author

Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and the coeditor of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices. He lives in Los Angeles.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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