Renaissance Ceremonies & the Burial Beliefs

by Jen Saunders

Our spiritual beliefs and sociological influences dictate how we honor our dead and lay their bodies to rest, and when examining the era known as the Renaissance in this context it becomes very clear that the ideas of the time stand in contrast to our own. The period known as the European Renaissance spanned from the 14th to the 17th century, and was a time in which Christians used death as a way to cling to their religious faith, while Muslims emphasized the cleanliness of the ritual.

Enforcing Christian Beliefs

During the Renaissance, the average lifespan was 30 to 40 years. There was no sanitation, and most people died from disease. With wars raging and plagues running their course, people struggled to maintain their faith in God. Burial ceremonies offered mourners the chance to strengthen their faith by reinforcing the idea that death was not the last moment of a person’s life. Instead, it was emphasized that the dead go to heaven. According to York University researcher Gorcin Dizdar, people were encouraged to visit the dying to reinforce their belief that God offers salvation, thus creating a link from the physical world to the celestial afterlife. Otherwise, the living might have avoided visiting the dying, for fear of contracting disease.

Islam Renaissance Body Rituals

There were many followers of Islam living in Europe during the Renaissance, and their rituals attested to their strict spiritual beliefs dedicated to cleanliness in the name of Allah. Water was poured over the body, which was to be bathed with thoroughness and diligence. Dead girls would be bathed with water and berry leaves between three and five times, and then again with camphor added to the water. After bodies were washed, they were wrapped in linen to await burial. The Muslim view of the afterlife enforced the idea that a person must be cleaned before entering paradise to show honor to God. Muslims prepared the body so it could be clean for passage into the afterlife and worthy of celestial blessing.

Grave Markers

The significance of grave markers was akin to our customs today: They were used as artistic symbols of remembrance to provide a place where loved ones could mourn. In the Renaissance, common people were generally not given markers or headstones. As the mortality rate was high and most people didn’t live past 40, it was common for graveyards to become crowded. To make room for the new dead, graveyards were often dug up and bones were collected to be relocated to church out-buildings. Wealthy people were typically buried inside churches. In some cases, the extremely wealthy were buried in private chapels or in large vaults on their own property. This aspect of burial did not tie in with religious beliefs, but rather reveals custom according to economic standing.

Insight From Renaissance Dramas

The way dead bodies were portrayed in Renaissance dramas gives insight into the beliefs and customs of the time, and how traditions began shifting. Mary Elizabeth Lough from the University of Connecticut argues that the relationship between beliefs about the dead and dramatic representations of the corpse reveal cultural concerns. This was because the body shifted to being an object of dramatic interest on the stage for audience entertainment, and not one of reverence and Christian devotion. Lough sites “The Spanish Tragedy” and argues that it re-shaped the layout of the afterlife by interjecting dramatic elements that detracted from Christian beliefs that honored the body with respect. She concludes that dramatic body staging paved the way for Jacobean traditions in which “the fear of God” was less a part of burial ceremonies.

About the Author

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.

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