Have You Heard of “Dining with the Dead”?

I stumbled across this passage in Andrew McGowan’s book Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic). I found it fascinating.

“Although “martyrs” soon became a term for those who had died, even feeding the martyrs did not end with their physical extinction. Since communal eating was so important to the early Christians, it may not be surprising to find them dining with the dead as well. In many parts of the ancient Mediterranean it was already customary to celebrate for (or with) the dead annually, in meals termed refrigeria, “refreshments.” The prominence of banqueting imagery in ancient funerary art is striking, not merely decorative but evocative of hopes for what the deceased might enjoy. But where in traditional Greco-Roman belief the departed were sometimes more like clients relying on the living for remembrance and sustenance, and probably respected more than embraced, the martyrs were patrons to cultivate; to dine with them was to eat with the great, and an invitation to their circle was a foretaste of the great banquet of the reign of God.

Strictly speaking, aspirations expressed to the martyrs for their powerful intercession were not “prayer” to them as though to God; it was acknowledgment that faith required a community and that death was not the end of the duties or of possibilities that community gave. This Christian care of the departed martyrs was a sort of familial duty, and all members of the church and of earthly families also required respect. Tertullian sees no hint of paganism in his insistence that a wife’s duty to her deceased husband would involve cemeterial gifts: “Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests interim refreshment [refrigerium] for him, and for fellowship in the first resurrection, and she offers on the anniversaries of his falling asleep” (On Monogamy 10.4). The refrigerium and “offering” here include some sort of funerary meal celebrated with the grateful dead, whether the cemetery picnic, a more institutional eucharistic celebration, or both.

Through the third and fourth centuries, Christian practice combined these elements of care for and care from the dead. The distinction between this new martyr cult and older forms of dining with the departed was not always obvious, and the combination of the two made the cemetery venues often as important as churches; churches were even built in the cemeteries. The decorations of the Roman catacombs, with prominent banqueting scenes, also link heavenly aspirations with earthly customs performed in front of them; African tombs with hollows for food offerings, and even holes for the direct administration of wine to the occupants of graves, go beyond evocation to enactment.

A description of how Christians at Smyrna took care of the remains of their mid-second-century hero Polycarp exemplifies remembrance of the saints: “Thus we later took up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, and costlier than gold, and put them in a suitable place. There the Lord will allow us to come together as we can in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already competed, and for the training and preparation of those to come” (Mart. Pol. 18.2–3).58 Here are the elements of the cult of the saints known in subsequent centuries: veneration of their relics, places associated with their remains (eventually churches dedicated to them), and feasts commemorating their deaths. The last of these are referred to in the ancient martyr acts, remarkably, as “birthdays”—not the anniversary of mortal life beginning but of its end and the beginning of new, heavenly life.”

Cover Art

Ancient Christian Worship is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 320 pages and sells for $29.99.

Andrew B. McGowan (PhD, University of Notre Dame), an Anglican priest, is president and dean of the Berkeley Divinity School and J. L. Caldwell McFaddin and Rosine B. McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School. He previously served as warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and is the author of Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals.

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