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In the performance of funeral honours to the memory of the dead, the ancients appear to have had two simple, but contrary, objects in view : some preferring that mode which would the more readily promote animal decomposition ; others, and the larger portion,) adopting that which would tend to preserve entire the material of the mortal coil. The former object was effected by cremation, or burning, and subsequent incineration; the latter, by interment-and, in some instances, by the process of embalming:
The disposition of the dead by interment, or inhumation, is the most ancient and general.
In the Mosaic History, we are informed, that Abraham purchased of Ephron, the Hittite, the cave of Macphelah for a burial-place, in which were afterwards interred his wife, Sarah, and himself, and subsequently Isaac and his wife, Rebekah ; Jacob and Leah ; and commentators appear to concur in believing that Joseph and his brethren were all consigned to the same family resting-place.
The accounts afforded us by the Mosaic Writings, and the Jewish History generally, of the ancient sepulchral rites, induce two important conclusions,-the one, that the bodies of the dead were committed to the earth, by burial ; and the other, that interments were made, not in the midst of the living, but at a distance from towns and cities, and in localities specially appropriated and set apart for the solemn purpose.
Abraham, as previously stated, was buried with Sarah, his wife, in the cave of Macphelah, in the field of Ephron. Gen. xxv. 9.
And Uzziah, King of Judah, “slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field of the burial which belonged to the Kings.” 2. Chron. xxvi. 23.
The sepulchre of Lazarus was without the village of Bethany, as was that of Joseph without the city of Jerusalem.
Local circumstances and unfounded superstitions would, however, exercise their influence, and in some cases suggest different modes for the disposal of the dead. We are told, that the Germans, who possessed large forests and consequently a ready supply of fuel, burned their dead. Homer relates the same thing of the Phrygians, and Virgil of the Trojans: and, indeed, in long-protracted sieges or sanguinary battles, where numbers were continually falling by the sword, but few places might be found appropriate, or opportunities convenient, for the process and ceremony of interment. Nor is it improbable, that the practice of burning might obtain in countries infested with wild beasts, as a preventive against their ravenous attacks, when driven by hunger from their native mountains and forests.*
It is somewhat remarkable, that islanders and the inhabitants of other maritime places have but seldom had recourse to the plan of depositing their dead in the depths of the sea, as an easy mode of burial; and it is difficult to account for this fact upon any other principle, than that a compliance with it would appear an indignity and want of respect to their remains.
Monsieur Muret, in his work on Ancient Funeral Rites, Mr. Ward, in his interesting and erudite History of the Hindoos, states, that no less a
published in France nearly two centuries since, has the following account of what he calls “ Watery Burials :"
“ Though the custom of casting the dead into the water be no less barbarous than that of casting them into the fire ; yet it has been practised by some people who have nevertheless differed among themselves as to the place: for some plunged their dead into lakes, others into running waters, and others again into the sea, every one having for his so doing particular reasons.
They that cast them into the sea, did it that they might the longer be preserved by the salt and sharpness of that
Those that plunged them into rivers would thereby intimate, that as by the current of water they were carried into the vast ocean, so by the whole course of their lives they had been passing towards eternity, into which they were now at last launched by death. And they who committed them to lakes, which are standing waters, intended thereby to express the rest and repose the dead meet with in the other world, after all the tempests and traverses of
which is nothing else but a boisterous and raging • Besides these particular reasons, they had sorne that were more general and common,-- the first of which was, that, seeing the dead turn to corruption and become very loathsome and filthy, they persuaded themselves they could make no better provision against putrefaction than by casting them into the water, because that washeth and cleanseth every thing.
“ Another reason was, because the water being considered a sacred element, they thereby thought to hallow and consecrate the dead.
“ A third followed the opinion of Thales; who held, that all things were made and consisted of water. The bodies of men were by these means resolved into that first principle from whence they had their beginning.
“ And,” our author with quaint simplicity adds, sweet and easy did many of them fancy this way of burial to be, and had so much respect for it, that not being able to
quantity than three hundred weight of wood is necessary to consume a human body; and if this estimate be correct, it would seem obvious, that the amount of fuel requisite for the purpose, must, in densely populated and thinly wooded countries, render the process of cremation unattainable by the poorer classes, and especially as the funeral pile generally received the addition of various expensive ingredients in the shape of spices, odours, and even precious jewels, which were consumed with the body of the deceased.
Opposed to the practice of burning, was the superstition of the Persians and other nations, who being idolaters of the Sun and Fire, would discard it as sacrilegious, and adopt the custom of inhumation.*
wait for their natural death, when in an orderly way they might be made partakers of it, after having made themselves merry by excessive eating and drinking, they went and cast themselves, of their own accord, either in the sea or some river, thereby to antedate their conceited bliss and happiness."
And to give one modern, though ludicrous, instance, we quote the following curious entry which may be found in the parochial registry of Lymington: “ Samuel Baldwin, Esq., Sojourner in this parish, was immersed, without the Needles, sans cérémonie, May 20, 1736.”
We are told that this singular funeral rite was performed in consequence of an earnest wish the deceased had expressed, in order to disappoint the anticipations of his wife, who had repeatedly assured him in their frequent domestic broils, (in order, perhaps, to prove how little her own tem
had to do in fomenting them,) that if she survived him she would revenge herself by dancing on
grave. * The most recently recorded instance of cremation, as practised in a Christian country, is that of Peter Laurens,
The early Christians also, embracing and constantly inculcating the consoling doctrine of the resurrection and the re-union of the soul and body, would consider the practice of interment more accordant with their religious opinions, and committing “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” would thus restore their bodies to the common mother from whence they had sprung, in sure and certain hope of the dawning of “that day” when the mortal should assume its immortality.
In close connexion with funeral rites, and hardly separable from them, are other customs, having also for their express object the lasting preservation of the remains of the dead : the most interesting and general were those of embalming and incineration.
Nations less civilized have resorted to other methods, all having reference to burial ceremonies, but hardly of sufficient importance to detain the reader by any lengthened account of them.
It may, however, be stated, that the Caffres (amongst whom burial is the exclusive privilege of their chiefs) are almost the only savages who
the first president of the American Congress. It appears that his infant daughter had narrowly escaped being buried alive; for, believing her to have died of the small-pox, the attendants had prepared her body for burial : and it was only resuscitated by the opening of a window, which had, as was then usual, in that disease, been closed during her illness. Laurens appears, by a misinterpretation of some Scripture passages, to have entertained a superstitious notion of the effects of fire, in a purgatorial sense.