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date: 07 December 2023

Christian Marriage and Funeral Services as Rites of Passagefree

Christian Marriage and Funeral Services as Rites of Passagefree

  • Ruth A. MeyersRuth A. MeyersChurch Divinity School of the Pacific


Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition.

Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.


  • Christianity
  • Rituals, Practices, and Symbolism

Weddings: Origins of Christian Practice

In an exhaustive study of marriage, historian Stephanie Coontz concluded that, with the exception of just one society, “marriage has been, in one form or another, a universal social institution throughout recorded history.”1 The legal and spiritual state of marriage is often but by no means always established by a wedding rite. Terminology overlaps, as the ceremony is sometimes referred to as a “marriage” or “matrimony.”

The rituals creating a marriage are domestic and social in origin, rather than religious. Even when the rituals incorporate religious components, such as a blessing, or are administered by religious officials, they usually retain folk practices from contemporaneous and/or historical cultural contexts.

In many societies, the ritual passage to a marriage begins with a betrothal, a distinct period of transition marked by rites of separation and transition. The betrothal is followed by a wedding at a later time, resulting in a change in status and identity for the couple.

Since Christianity originated as a movement within Judaism, it is likely that Christian wedding practices were influenced by Jewish customs. The Old Testament offers a few glimpses of rituals surrounding marriage. The weddings of Jacob to Leah and to Rachel (Gen. 29:21–30) and of Samson to an unnamed Philistine woman (Judg. 14:10–20) involved seven days of feasting. Elsewhere we learn that a bride wore special clothes and adorned herself with jewels, while the bridegroom wore a crown (Song 3:11; Isa. 49:18, 61:10; Jer. 2:32).

The distinctive religious component of Jewish wedding practice is a blessing. In Genesis 24, the story of Rebekah becoming the wife of the patriarch Isaac, Rebekah’s family blesses her with a prayer for fertility and prosperity as she departs from her parents’ home to travel to her new husband’s home (Gen. 24:60). The book of Tobit, written about 200 bce, includes a blessing said by Tobias on the night of his wedding to Sarah, asking for true marriage rather than one formed in lust. By 200 ce, when the Mishnah was promulgated, marriage began with a betrothal comprising a gift of wine (and perhaps other gifts), a blessing over the wine, a declaration of intent, and a blessing. The wedding feast, celebrated sometime later, included a blessing addressed to the groom as an extension of the Jewish grace after meals.

Wedding practices in ancient Rome also influenced Christian practice. Roman weddings, at least in ideal form, ritualized a woman’s passage from virgin to wife. A Roman bride was adorned in fine clothes, jewelry, and perfume. Donning a veil was essential. Attendants accompanied the bride from her home to that of the groom. The wedding was celebrated with a feast and may have included sacrifice to household gods and rites at the wedding bed. Such weddings were most often celebrated by members of the upper classes, for whom it was important to establish clear lines of descent.

Evidence for early Christian practice is limited. The Gospel of John reports that Jesus’s first miracle occurred at a wedding at Cana, where he changed water into wine (John 2:1–11), a text later cited in Christian wedding rites as an indication of Jesus’s approval of marriage. But the apostle Paul urged Christians not to marry unless they were consumed with lust and unable to practice self-control: “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). A preference for celibacy over marriage continued in the Christian West until the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.

In the earliest known reference to the church’s involvement in establishing a marriage, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch at the end of the 1st century ce, commented that members of a couple should enter into their union with the advice of their bishop. Rather than the participation of the bishop in the wedding ritual, Ignatius may have simply been exhorting his flock to seek the bishop’s approval before marrying according to local social custom. Later in the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria’s stated dislike for bridal wigs because the bride’s real hair is to be blessed suggests a role for the church in Christian weddings.

The most detailed evidence for Christian wedding practice prior to the 4th century comes from Tertullian, writing in North Africa during the early 3rd century. Some practices are adopted from Roman customs: a kiss, joining of hands, giving of a ring, and the veiling of the bride until the wedding. But Tertullian rejects as idolatrous the Roman practice of wearing garlands or crowns. After a period of betrothal (Tertullian doesn’t specify the duration), the wedding takes place in the church with a blessing of the couple and perhaps also the celebration of a Eucharist in place of a pagan sacrifice.

Weddings: Eastern Christian Rites

Evidence for Christian wedding practices in the eastern Mediterranean area can be gleaned from the writings of several 4th-century theologians, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. The lack of earlier evidence from this region makes it impossible to determine whether these are new developments in the Constantinian era, when Christianity had become socially acceptable.

Betrothal was common, although little is known of liturgical practices. John Chrysostom referred to a “pledge,” probably a ring placed on the bride’s finger, given before the marriage.

In contrast to Tertullian’s rejection of pagan crowns, a crown made with precious metal became central in Eastern wedding practice, and in later centuries the wedding itself came to be called “crowning.” John Chrysostom explained that crowns symbolized victory over passion.

Eastern sources also emphasized the importance of the blessing pronounced by the bishop or priest, which several writers described as the “yoke” that unites the couple. While it is unclear whether this part of the rite took place in the church or at home, the wedding also included prayers at the marriage bed, a pagan fertility practice that Christians continued for many centuries. Other cultural practices were condemned, including raucous feasting and excesses of dress.

The two-stage process of betrothal and wedding continued in later Eastern practice, although these stages came to be celebrated much closer in time, and eventually the wedding immediately followed the betrothal. The rituals were elaborated in various ways in different Eastern Christian traditions while retaining the same central features: a preliminary betrothal that included the giving of a ring as a sign of the commitment to come; the crowning of the couple as the climax of the wedding rite; and a ritualized removal of the crowns, originally done at home.

Many of the Eastern rites incorporate the reading of Ephesians 5, which presents marriage as an analogy for Christ’s care for the church; the Byzantine rite also includes John 2, the wedding at Cana, while other Eastern rites call for Matthew 19, Jesus’s teaching about divorce. Overall, the prayers in these rites offer a positive view of marriage, invoking not only the examples of the Jewish patriarchs but also saints and martyrs who are said to rejoice in these unions. In contrast to the Western Christian rites, the prayers in the Eastern rites as well as the action of crowning give equal attention to the man and the woman. By the 12th century, an exchange of rings was common.

Weddings: Medieval Western Developments

The earliest Roman sacramentaries, dating to the 6th through 8th centuries, provide prayers for marriage in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist. The bride is central. Some of the books entitle the rite “the veiling,” and the nuptial blessing prays exclusively for the bride, with no mention of the groom. The prayers extol the virtues of biblical exemplars, matriarchs and others whom the bride is to emulate. In contrast to the Eastern preference for reading Ephesians 5 and John 2, Roman sources, for example, the Würzburg Lectionary, which dates to the late 6th century, indicate that the readings included 1 Corinthians 6:15–20, a warning about fornication, or 1 Corinthians 7:32–35, which extols celibacy, while several gospel lectionaries appoint Matthew 19:1–6, Jesus’s teaching about divorce.2

In addition to the nuptial Eucharist celebrated in the church, domestic marriage rituals were commonly practiced during the early Middle Ages. The wedding ceremony, consisting primarily of the consent of the partners, often took place without any church involvement. When clergy did have a role in the wedding, their participation was not considered essential to the marriage. Christian sources from the 8th through 10th centuries include a blessing of the ring, a blessing of the bedchamber, or both. For example, the 8th-century Bobbio Missal, from northern Italy, has only a blessing of the wedding chamber, while the 10th-century English Pontifical of Egbert provides blessings for the wedding chamber, the ring, and the bed.3

In Spain, elaborate wedding rituals developed over the course of several centuries. The Liber Ordinum, a collection of Mozarabic and Visigothic texts from Spain that date from the 5th through the 11th centuries, includes a blessing of the bedchamber before the nuptial mass as well as a blessing of pledges (Arrhas, a local folk custom) with an exchange of rings between groom and bride. The nuptial mass in this collection introduces a formal giving away of the bride, who is handed over from her family to the priest and then from the priest to the groom. A cord is then tied around the couple, signifying their binding together, and the priest prays over them together and then over the girl alone.4

Beginning in the 12th century, the church assumed more control over the ceremony. The domestic and church rites came together in a ceremony at the church door. The bride and groom gave their consent to the marriage, the woman’s father handed her over to the groom, and the priest blessed a ring, which the groom gave to the bride along with other tokens, often gold and silver. After prayers at the church door, the priest led the couple into the church for the nuptial mass, which included additional blessings and the ritual exchange of peace, the priest giving the kiss of peace to the husband, who then passed it to his wife. In some places, a blessing of the bedchamber followed at a later time, this folk custom now more of an afterthought than a central part of the ritual.

While in the Christian East the priest’s blessing of the couple was considered the primary ritual act, the Western church emphasized the consent, which was done in the vernacular rather than in the liturgical language of Latin. In the 11th century, church law established that consent of the couple was the essential, performative aspect effecting marriage. Concern about clandestine marriages led to the decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that the “banns of marriage” (an announcement of the names of those to be married) be read aloud in the vernacular on three Sundays prior to the marriage, and eventually a final reading of the banns was incorporated at the beginning of the wedding ceremony. In addition to preventing clandestine marriage, the banns were intended to identify any legal impediment to a proposed marriage.

At least from the time of Augustine in the late 4th century, the procreation of children was considered one of the chief goods of marriage. As sacramental theology developed during the 11th through 13th centuries, theologians vigorously debated the theology of marriage. Eventually a consensus emerged. The exchange of promises by the couple made the marriage sacramental, even if the marriage had been conducted in secret. The sacramental grace conferred in marriage was not only a grace to avoid the sin of fornication, but also a grace that enabled fidelity in marriage and spiritual unity between husband and wife. As a sign of the union between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32), the sacramental bond of marriage could not be dissolved.

At first, consent was given as a simple declarative “I do” in response to the priest’s question to each member of the couple in turn. But beginning in northern France in the 14th century, the couple exchanged vows in addition to giving their consent; a 14th-century Ritual from the Cistercian abbey of Barbeau in central France includes the earliest known text of this vow. From there the custom spread quickly throughout France and the British Isles. In vows in an edition of the Sarum Manual dating to the 15th century, which had widespread and long-lasting influence, the man promised, “I take thee N to my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poor, in sickness and in health, til death us depart, if holy church it will ordain, and thereto I plight thee my troth.” The woman’s vow was identical, except that she also promised “to be bonner and buxom, in bed and at board.”5 Here, the woman’s vow was similar to her consent, which also required her to promise obedience to her husband.

Although the late medieval liturgical texts reflect the church’s increasing control over the wedding ceremony, in practice many couples continued to exchange vows in private. It was only in the 16th century that the Council of Trent required that marriage be contracted in the presence of a priest and two witnesses. The banns were to be announced publicly three weeks in advance of the marriage, and the marriage was to be entered into the parish register.

Weddings: Protestant Reformation

The 16th-century Protestant Reformers rejected the Roman church’s understanding of marriage as sacrament, arguing that marriage had not been instituted by Christ but rather was a state of life instituted by God in creation. The Reformers maintained the church’s role in conducting weddings but were also open to civil jurisdiction over marriages.

Martin Luther understood marriage as part of the natural order of creation, a social estate governed by civil authority and not the church. Nonetheless, pastors were responsible for teaching about God’s will for marriage, and weddings were to be performed publicly, in church, with the pastor blessing and instructing the couple. Luther retained the publication of banns, emphasizing the public character of the marriage. The order for marriage he introduced in 1529 continued the medieval custom of a two-stage rite. At the church door, the couple gave their consent and exchanged rings, after which the minister joined their right hands and recited from Matthew 19:6, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then, moving to the altar, the priest solemnly pronounced Genesis 2:18, 21–24 (“the two shall become one flesh”), exhorted the couple in a text based upon Ephesians 5 and Genesis 3 (the pain of childbirth), and prayed over the couple. Later Lutheran rites followed this pattern and added an address at the beginning of the rite.

Like Luther, John Calvin understood marriage as an ordinance of God and so a matter of the earthly kingdom rather than the heavenly. In his later writings, including commentaries, sermons, and letters, he articulated a covenantal theology of marriage as a spiritual union of a man and a woman that included God as part of the covenant. In 1545 Calvin joined four members of the city council of Geneva to draft a comprehensive marriage ordinance that gave the Protestant civil magistrate jurisdiction over marriage.6 Weddings continued to take place in the church. Calvin’s 1542 Form of Prayers eschewed symbolism in favor of the word. Gone were the rings and joining of hands as well as movement from the church door to the altar. The rite took place after the sermon at a Sunday liturgy that did not include the celebration of the Eucharist. It began with biblical catechesis explaining the origins and purpose of marriage. Questions of consent and commitment followed, including the congregation’s consent. After a brief prayer for grace, the minister read Matthew 19:3–6, then declared the couple to be married. The rite concluded with a lengthy prayer and a brief blessing. Later Calvinist rites often occurred outside of Sunday morning and incorporated the popular customs of the ring and the joining of hands.

In contrast to the reforms of Luther and Calvin, the reformed Anglican marriage rite, which first appeared in the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, retains many of the features of the medieval Roman rite. The banns are published for three Sundays prior to the wedding. The ceremony begins in the body of the church, rather than at the church door, although there is movement to the altar for the final prayers and blessings. An opening exhortation declares that marriage was ordained for procreation, as a remedy against sin, and for mutual help and comfort, purposes that had appeared in liturgies and church teaching for several centuries. The consent and the vows are similar to the Sarum form, with the notable addition of “to love and to cherish” in the vows. The man places the ring on the woman’s finger, although the ring is not blessed. The couple join and loose hands when they exchange vows, and the priest joins their hands for the pronouncement of the marriage, with the addition of Matthew 19:6 (from the Lutheran rite but modified to focus on the couple: “Those whom God had joined …”) before the pronouncement. Prayers of blessing follow, and the rubrics direct that the couple receive communion on the day of their marriage. The practice of a nuptial communion, however, seems to have fallen into disuse; the 1662 Book of Common Prayer calls for the couple to receive communion at the time of their marriage or at the first opportunity after their marriage. In the Anglican tradition, as in Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, marriage became an occasional office rather than a public event celebrated during the community’s principal weekly liturgy.

Weddings: Contemporary Developments

“How Love Conquered Marriage,” the subtitle of Stephanie Coontz’s history of marriage, encapsulates the dramatic shift to companionate marriage in Western societies since the Industrial Revolution. Marriage is undertaken for love, rather than at the behest of parents seeking political or economic alliance. No longer a social duty, it is considered an individual right. A couple who falls in romantic love can fall out of love, and as a result in recent decades divorce rates have increased and the stigma surrounding divorce has diminished. These and other changes are reflected in contemporary marriage practices in many churches.

In contrast to an emphasis on marriage as a remedy for sin, contemporary marriage liturgies often present marriage as positive good, undertaken in mutual love. For example, the rite in the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland describes marriage as “a gift of God and a means of grace … founded in God’s loving nature, and in God’s covenant of love with us in Christ,”7 a statement that reflects the Calvinist covenantal theology of marriage. As marriage is increasingly seen as an agreement between the two individuals being married rather than an arrangement between their parents, many rites eliminate the action of the father giving away the bride. Some continue to make this an option without requiring it, and some provide for a presentation of both members of the couple.

Many contemporary rites underscore the equality of the spouses in other ways, too. Rather than requiring that the woman promise to obey her husband, many churches provide identical texts for both the man and the woman for the consent and for the vows. Some change the order, the woman giving her consent before the man, the man making his vow before the woman does so; others do not specify an order. Many allow an exchange of rings rather than only the man giving a ring to the woman.

As the influence of the church decreases in Western societies, marriage more often takes place outside of the church. In some countries, all couples must be married in a civil context, and the blessing of the church is entirely optional. Elsewhere, clergy function as agents of the state, and civil and ecclesiastical marriage take place in a single ceremony. Many couples choose to be married without any religious ceremony. Ronald Grimes argues that in Europe and North America at the turn of the 21st century, weddings “are the rites of passage … the single ritual performance upon which we in the West spend the largest amounts of time, energy, and money.”8 For many people, marriage marks their coming of age, and a wedding industry offers a plethora of options for enacting this rite of passage. Churches, too, are more likely to give couples choices for their wedding, whether options for which passages of Scripture are read or different rites altogether. In the Roman Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law relaxed the requirement for announcing marriage banns, allowing local conferences of bishops to establish the means by which a pastor determines that there are no impediments to a valid and licit marriage.

In this contemporary post-Christendom context in the West, marriage may take place between people of different faiths or between a Christian and a nonbeliever, situations that pose significant pastoral and theological challenges. Can a Christian wedding ceremony be held, or could a ceremony incorporate elements of both traditions? In the mid-1990s, the Anglican Church of Canada added to its Occasional Celebrations “Marriage between a Christian and a Person of Another Faith Tradition,” which includes theological, pastoral, and canonical guidelines as well as a ritual text offered as a model for adaptation of the contemporary marriage liturgy in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services. Adaptations require the permission of the diocesan bishop, and while prayers, songs, and readings from other traditions may be incorporated, any such additions “should complement Christian devotion and serve to foster harmony among those involved.”9

The Anglican Church of Canada also provides a liturgy “At the Ending of a Marriage.” The liturgy as well as the pastoral introduction that accompanies it emphasizes that marriage is understood as a lifelong commitment while also acknowledging the pastoral reality of the breakdown of a marriage. At the heart of the liturgy are prayers of healing and prayers of confession.

While not many churches provide a liturgy for the ending of a marriage, the rising rate of divorce has posed the question of remarriage after divorce. The Roman Catholic Church continues to teach the indissolubility of marriage while also providing a process for obtaining from ecclesiastical authorities an annulment of a previous marriage and permitting another marriage after the first has been annulled. Some Anglicans permit a service of blessing after a civil marriage ceremony, while others make canonical provision for remarriage after divorce with the consent of the bishop.

In recent decades, churches have begun to wrestle publicly with the question of same-sex marriage. New understandings of the complexity of sexual orientation as well as biblical study since the mid-20th century have led to greater acceptance of same-sex couples by some Christians. As same-sex unions or marriages have been recognized in some civil jurisdictions, churches in those contexts have debated whether to provide church ceremonies or blessings of these civil marriages. In the United States, the Episcopal Church in 2012 authorized a rite for blessing the covenantal union of a same-sex couple, and then three years later authorized rites for same-sex marriage, including a gender-neutral version of the marriage liturgy in the church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer.10

Funerals: Early Christianity

Like weddings, funerals mark a human experience and not a distinctively Christian practice. Just as Christian wedding practices were influenced by Jewish practice as well as ancient Roman customs, so too Christian funeral practices have their origins in both Jewish and Roman customs.

Little evidence remains of ancient Jewish funeral practice. The Old Testament mentions the burial of patriarchs, judges, and kings in their own land and with their ancestors (Gen. 23:2–20, 49:29–31, 50:4–14, 50:24–26; Judg. 8:32, 12:7, 16:31; 2 Kings 9:28), and in a few places it describes the burial of enemies under mound of stones (Josh. 8:29, 10:26–27; 2 Sam. 21:12–14). Burial of the dead is a recurring motif in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit (3rd–2nd century bce), the story of a devout Jew for whom burying not only relatives and friends but any deceased Jew was a vital practice. Scattered texts in the New Testament attest to washing and anointing the body (John 19:39–40; Acts 9:37), wrapping the body in linen cloths (Matt. 27:59 and parallels; John 11:44), funeral processions (Luke 7:12–15), the gathering of a community to mourn (John 11:17–19), and weeping and lamentation (Acts 8:2, 9:39).

Archeologist Jocelyn Toynbee’s description of the funeral practice customary at the death of an ordinary Roman citizen includes a final kiss by the nearest relative, catching the soul as it was breathed out; washing and anointing the body; placing a coin in the dead person’s mouth to pay the fee for ferrying the deceased to the land of the dead; a nighttime funeral procession lit by torches; earth cast on the corpse after it was laid in the ground or before it was cremated; a rite of purification for the relatives after returning from the funeral; and a feast at the grave on the ninth day after the funeral.11

While Christian funeral practices built upon or modified Jewish and Roman practices, Christian theological understanding was also key. Christian belief in the resurrection shaped their understanding of death, and Christian hope of eternal life with Christ offered consolation in the face of grief and loss, such that the day of death was understood to be the day of birth into eternal life. Decorations at burial places suggested that Christians had gone to a place of rest, refreshment, light, and peace. Martyrs were understood to enjoy the immediate rewards of paradise with Christ. Simple shrines or tombs were erected at their places of burial, and Christians gathered on the anniversary of their death to celebrate the Eucharist with rejoicing.

The expectation of bodily resurrection meant that Christians attended with care to the mortal remains of the faithful departed. After death, the body was washed, anointed to preserve it before burial, and wrapped in linen. A reference to incense in Tertullian’s Apology may indicate that Christians used incense for fumigation and as a form of embalming without attaching any religious significance to the practice.12 By the 6th century, liturgical books included a variety of psalms, prayers, and hymns to be said or sung as the body was washed and laid out.

Early Christian leaders such as Tertullian, Augustine, and Ambrose encouraged Christians to modify the Roman practice of funeral feasts that took place at the graveside. Celebration of the Eucharist was encouraged in place of the Roman rites, and Christians were encouraged to use the funeral feast as an occasion to provide food for the poor.

Roman practice also influenced Christian development of the viaticum, food for the journey. The coin placed in the mouth of the dead was sometimes described as the viaticum, which had originally referred to supplies gathered for a journey. Christians came to use the term in reference to practices that sustained them in their Christian journey, in particular the Eucharist. By the time of the Council of Nicaea, the practice of giving communion to the dying as viaticum was well established. In several 4th and 5th-century texts we find accounts of Christians dying with the Eucharistic bread still in their mouths.13 The promulgation of canon law prohibiting giving communion to the dead and burial of the dead with the Eucharist in their mouths is an indication that the practice was common enough to be viewed as problematic.

Funerals: Eastern Christian Practices

The earliest Christian burial practices were developed and elaborated in Eastern Christian traditions, many of which developed separate services for clergy and laity. In his study of Eastern rites, Geoffrey Rowell found a common underlying pattern: prayers, responses, and psalmody said at the home; a funeral procession to the church with the recitation of psalms or chants based on psalms; a service at the church with prayers, hymns, and psalms as well as the reading of scripture, usually both epistle and gospel; procession to the place of burial; and a simple committal consisting of prayers of commendation and sprinkling earth on the body.14

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, commenting on funeral liturgy in 6th-century Syria, describes prayers of thanksgiving and the reading of scripture about the promise of resurrection. He explains that the body, which had previously been anointed in baptism for sacred combat, is anointed in burial as a proclamation of victory in the fight. Contemporary Eastern rites have maintained the joy and triumph that characterized the earliest Christian funeral practices.

Funerals: Developments in the Medieval West and Protestant Reformation

In contrast to the Eastern Christian emphasis on the promise of eternal life with Christ, by the 5th century a profound shift was underway in the medieval Western church. Rather than a joyful celebration of an individual’s passage from death into new life, with viaticum providing food for the journey to the final resurrection, rites surrounding death began to focus on the state of the dying person. Historian Frederick Paxton explains this development: “To the new communities of Christians in the early medieval West, however, death held more terror.… In a world of disorder, among people for whom Christianity was an alien faith conveyed in a foreign tongue, the question of personal salvation had less easy answers. Humankind’s fallen condition demanded penitence.… The forms of penance multiplied and rites of purification played an increasing role.”15

As death came to be seen as a summons to judgment and punishment for sin, greater ritual attention was given to the dying person. Preparation for death came to include ritual penance, a final anointing that came to be known as extreme unction, giving the viaticum, and reading the Passion gospel. At the moment of death a prayer of commendation and psalms were said. The body was then prepared for burial by washing it and placing it on a bier while psalms were recited. This ritual action in the home concluded with a brief prayer, and the body was carried to the church as psalms and antiphons were sung. In some places, the deceased remained in the church building as members of the community kept watch, intermittently singing psalms and antiphons.

Manuscript evidence suggests that the rites in the church building underwent gradual changes between the 8th and 13th centuries as the Roman burial liturgy spread throughout Europe and incorporated elements of practices from other parts of Europe. Monasteries played a significant role in these developments, for they provided communities of care for whom liturgy was an important element of daily life. While the body lay in the church building for several days, the daily prayer of the monks was supplemented by special offices for the dead and vigil prayers for the deceased. The community’s regular morning celebration of mass concluded the wake. Eventually the mass came to be understood as celebrated on behalf of the deceased as part of the funeral ritual and was celebrated apart from the community’s regular liturgy. The medieval fear of death rather than the confidence of an earlier age is evident in the introduction in the 13th century of the text Dies irae (“Day of wrath”) in the mass for the dead.

The rites in the church were followed by burial. Before the elaboration of the liturgy, the procession from the home to the church was the principal movement, and burial near the church building followed immediately upon a short service of prayers in the church. But as the liturgy developed, an additional set of suffrages was introduced at the conclusion of the funeral mass before removing the body for burial. By the 12th century, these suffrages reflected the fear of death that characterized medieval piety, with a responsory pleading, “Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death.”16 The need for purification led to the use of incense and holy water at this final service of prayer.

While the basic pattern of the funeral liturgy was set by the 13th century, local churches continued to adapt the liturgy to meet their needs. After the Roman Ritual was promulgated in 1614, local adaptations were subject to the normative funeral liturgy in that book, which began with the parish priest and other ministers meeting the body at the home of the deceased. The body was carried to the church in procession as psalms and antiphons were recited. At the church, the Office of the Dead was prayed, and the body remained for the funeral Mass. The absolutio, the final service of prayer pleading for deliverance from eternal death, continued to be integral to the liturgy. The body was carried with processional chants to the grave, where additional prayers were accompanied by sprinkling the body and the grave with holy water and incensing them.17

The 16th-century Reformation liturgies were shaped by the medieval Western fear of death and the accompanying themes of divine judgment and eternal punishment. However, the Reformers rejected the Roman practice of prayer for the dead, and they also eliminated all references to purgatory.

Lutheran funeral rites were simple, taking place entirely or primarily at the graveside. Lutheran church orders employed biblical phraseology while also making use of some medieval Western material. A sermon, an innovation in Western funeral practice, was obligatory in the Lutheran church orders, and prayers emphasized admonishment of the living more than commendation of the deceased. Geoffrey Rowell calls attention to the regular use of the medieval prayer Media vita, “In the midst of life we are in death,” a text originally appointed for some medieval offices during Lent that was turned into a German hymn during the 15th century, which then became the basis of a text by Martin Luther.18

The Reformed tradition eliminated virtually all liturgy associated with death, retaining only a very simple practice of burial as needed for proper disposal of the body. John Knox’s 1556 service book for Geneva directs that the body be brought to the grave without any ceremony, and after it is interred the minister is to go to the church and “make some comfortable exhortation to the people, touching death and resurrection.”19 While Knox argued against the practice of funeral sermons, evidence can be found of such sermons in Scotland until at least 1638, when the General Assembly forbade their use.20

The 1549 and 1552 prayer books of the Church of England make no mention of rites in the home. In both books, the priest is directed to meet the body at the church stile and lead the procession either into the church or directly to the graveyard. In the 1549 rite, after reciting sentences from the medieval office of the dead, the priest casts earth on the body and commends the deceased to God. Additional prayers of commendation follow. Several psalms and the reading of 1 Corinthians 15, all taken from medieval offices for the dead, appear next, to be said either before or after the burial of the body. This section of the liturgy concludes with the Lord’s Prayer, suffrages, and another prayer for the deceased. The celebration of communion follows. The 1552 book abbreviates this liturgy considerably. After the opening sentences, the remainder of the liturgy takes place at the graveside. Psalms are omitted, though 1 Corinthians 15 is read, and communion is not celebrated.

Funerals: Modern Developments

Medieval Western practice as well as the burial practices of the Reformers reflected an acceptance of death as a natural part of life. This acceptance began to change with the individualist and rationalist emphases of the Enlightenment, as liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield Tucker explains: “The understanding that earthly life was the preparation for eternal life was slowly supplanted by a growing attachment to the material world, and with it, an uncertainty about death and what lay beyond the grave. Whereas in previous generations death was regarded as an unavoidable part of the fabric of life, in the early modern period death became taboo, a forbidden subject.”21

In his study of funeral practices in the United States, Thomas Long identifies several contributing factors to this significant change in attitudes about death. The death and devastation of the American Civil War (1861–8165) accelerated a crisis of faith as Christians struggled to reconcile their experience with their belief in a benevolent God. The development of science, including Darwin’s theories, during this same period led people to reject literal understandings of heaven and hell. The concept of heaven was not abandoned, Long asserts, but rather domesticated, so that heaven was reimagined as a better version of the best of earthly delights. In addition, during the late 19th century cemeteries began to be located in rural locations, away from cities and towns, with the result that the funeral ritual became separate from burial, which was increasingly optional. Long calls for the recovery of a robust Christian understanding of the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the journey of the dead to life everlasting.22

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Ordo Exsequiarum (1969) prepared after the Second Vatican Council introduced a series of rituals at the time of death, all underscoring the paschal character of Christian death as part of a Christian’s participation in the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Because the Eucharist, along with baptism, is the primary Christian celebration of the paschal mystery, it is customarily celebrated at the death of a Christian. The ritual texts also include prayers for a wake, a final commendation, procession to the grave, and prayers at the graveside. Local episcopal conferences may adapt the liturgy to incorporate regional circumstances and practices. In the United States, for example, a provisional Rite of Funerals used between 1970 and 1989 was replaced in 1989 by the Order of Christian Funerals.

Funeral liturgies in many Anglican and Protestant churches have also been revised in light of the 20th-century liturgical renewal with its emphasis on participation in the paschal mystery. Contemporary rites customarily include a service of the word, and preaching continues to be a hallmark of Protestant liturgy, although in some contexts this takes the form of a eulogy extolling the deceased more than a proclamation of Christian teaching. Anglicans and some Protestants have also begun to include the celebration of the Eucharist as part of funeral liturgy.

Christians since the earliest centuries have practiced the burial of the body rather than cremation, a preference that Thomas Long attributes, at least in part, to superstitions about the fires of cremation symbolizing the fires of hell, or that cremation makes a bodily resurrection impossible.23 In England, cremation was introduced in the late 19th century as a response to overcrowding in the parish churchyard cemeteries of most cities.24 Crematoriums developed largely apart from the influence of the Church of England, although today cremation is widely accepted, and some parishes have installed gardens of remembrance or columbaria. In 1963 the Roman Catholic Church allowed Catholics to opt for cremation; the ritual requires that the remains be interred rather than scattered or preserved in some form.

Review of the Literature

The rituals that bring about a marriage as well as funeral liturgies are “rites of passage,” effecting a transition from one state of being to another. In his classic 1909 study Les rites de passage,25 Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep observed that such rites customarily include three stages: separation from one’s original status, a transition or liminal period, and incorporation, conferring a new status. Theorists of ritual since then have developed various schema to categorize the diversity of ritual experience in different socio-cultural contexts and have utilized different methods to interpret the varieties of human ritual experience. But most theorists continue to identify rites of passage as major type or genre of ritual. In her 1997 study of ritual, Catherine Bell observed: “While these rites may be loosely linked to biological changes … they frequently depict a sociocultural order that overlays the natural biological order without being identical to it.”26 In Deeply into the Bone, Ronald Grimes combines narrative about rites of passage in different cultures and religions with interpretation and analysis of those rites, focusing on Western practices, particularly in North America.

In his 1982 study of Christian marriage rites, Anglican liturgical scholar Kenneth Stevenson used van Gennep’s three-stage model of rites of passage to analyze marriage liturgies from both Eastern and Western traditions from the earliest centuries of marriage to the 20th. This study remains the standard text on Christian marriage rites. A few year later, Stevenson drew upon this work to present the background and development of the post–Vatican II Roman rite of marriage.

Other scholars have explored the development of marriage as a Christian institution. In Marriage in the Western Church, Philip Reynolds explores what he calls the “Christianization” of marriage during the patristic and early medieval periods. He explores Roman and Germanic civil law as the background to the development of ecclesiastical law, then turns to Augustine’s theology of marriage. The final section of his book focuses on rituals and the overall process of becoming married. John Witte’s 1997 study From Sacrament to Contract identifies distinct understandings of marriage in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions, and the emergence of a contractual understanding of marriage in Enlightenment tradition. While Witte focuses on legal and canonical matters, he also touches on ritual practice.

Van Gennep’s three-stage model also shaped Frederick Paxton’s 1990 study Christianizing Death, which considers not only funeral rites but also rites for the dying that mark the first stage of a person’s passage from life. However, two other significant studies of Christian burial liturgies make no mention of van Gennep or rites of passage. The Liturgy of Christian Burial by Geoffrey Rowell considers the historical development of the rites, both East and West. In The Death of a Christian Richard Rutherford explores this history as it relates to Roman Catholic funeral liturgies; the first edition considers the history with regard to the 1969 Rite of Funerals, while the second, revised edition takes account of the 1989 Order of Christian Funerals. These latter studies provide the most comprehensive historical treatment from the origins of Christianity to the present.

According to Frederick Paxton, “Philippe Ariès was the first scholar to demonstrate the historical unity in the period from the beginning of the fifth to the end of the eighteenth centuries in Europe when that period is viewed from the perspective of the relations between the living and the dead. During those long centuries, the living and the dead coexisted in close proximity, and in many ways death was seen as a natural part of life, accepted and understood.”27

Primary Sources

Mark Searle and Kenneth W. Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy,28 includes ritual texts in English translation from the 1st century through the 16th. A brief introductory essay provides an overview of the history of marriage liturgies, focusing on the texts in this collection. Stevenson also includes a few texts in an appendix to his 1982 study Nuptial Blessing.

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook,29 edited by Conor McCarthy, includes writings of Christian theologians; legal texts; letters, chronicles, biography, and books about conduct; literary sources; and medical writings. Together these texts give the reader access to diverse perspectives on love, sex, and marriage, providing context for understanding the development of the marriage liturgy, although liturgical texts are not part of this collection.

No comparable compendium of primary sources in English translation exists for burial liturgies. Geoffrey Rowell includes a number of texts in his historical study The Liturgy of Christian Burial, and he also provides a few tables comparing Eastern prayers as well as mid-20th-century Anglican revisions. In The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals, Richard Rutherford provides brief excerpts and summarizes several primary sources. Damien Sicard has compiled Latin texts from the first millennium of Christianity in his study La Liturgie de la mort dans l’église latine des origins à la réforme carolingienne.

A Source Book About Christian Death,30 edited by Virginia Sloyan, includes biblical passages, Jewish and Christian prayers, hymn texts, poetry, and other writings about death arranged thematically, without a critical apparatus. Its primary intent is devotional, with its audience those who are dying, those who mourn, and those preparing rituals related to death and dying.

Further Reading

  • Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Knopf, 1981.
  • Bradshaw, Paul F., and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship. Two Liturgical Traditions, Vol. 4. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
  • Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005.
  • Deming, Will. Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Ntedika, Joseph. L’évocation de l’au-delà dans la prière pour les morts. Etudes de patristiques et de liturgie latines (IVe–VIIIe S.). Recherches Africaines de Théologie 2. Louvain-Paris: Nauwelaerts, 1971.
  • Olsen, Glenn W., ed. Christian Marriage: A Historical Study. New York: Crossroad, 2001.
  • Paxton, Frederick S. Christianizing Death: The Creation of a Ritual Process in Early Medieval Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1994.
  • Rowell, Geoffrey. The Liturgy of Christian Burial. Alcuin Club Collections 59. London: SPCK, 1977.
  • Rutherford, Richard. The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals. Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol. 7. Rev. ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990.
  • Sicard, Damien. La Liturgie de la mort dans l’église latine des origins à la réforme carolingienne. Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen 63. Münster, Germany: Aschendorff, 1978.
  • Stevenson, Kenneth. Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Stevenson, Kenneth. To Join Together: The Rite of Marriage. Studies in the Reformed Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol. 5. New York: Pueblo, 1987.
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
  • Witte, John. From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997.


  • 1. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking, 2005), 24.

  • 2. Kenneth Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 79.43–44.

  • 3. Mark Searle and Kenneth Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 100–106.

  • 4. Searle and Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy, 120–134.

  • 5. Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing, 79.

  • 6. John Witte, From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 83.

  • 7. “First Order of Marriage,” Book of Common Order (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1996).

  • 8. Ronald Grimes, Deeply into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 152–153.

  • 9. “Marriage Between a Christian and a Person of Another Faith,” Occasional Celebrations of the Anglican Church of Canada (Toronto: ABC Publishing, Anglican Book Centre, 1992, 1995), C35.

  • 10. I Will Bless You, and You Will Be a Blessing: Resources for the Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant in a Same-Sex Relationship, Liturgical Resources I (New York: Church Publishing, 2012);and I Will Bless You, and You Will Be a Blessing, Liturgical Resources I, rev. and expanded ed. (New York: Church Publishing, 2015).

  • 11. J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 43–51, cited by Richard Rutherford, The Death of a Christian: The Rite of Funerals (New York: Pueblo, 1980), 4–5.

  • 12. Tertullian, Apology 42.7. See Victor Saxer, Morts, Martyrs, Reliques en Afrique Chrétienne aux Prèmiers Siècles (Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1980), 54–55, cited by Richard Rutherford, The Death of a Christian: The Rite of Funerals, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 10.

  • 13. Geoffrey Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial (London: SPCK, 1977), 13–15.

  • 14. Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial, 31–32.

  • 15. Frederick Paxton, Christianizing Death: The Creation of a Ritual Process in Early Medieval Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 202–203.

  • 16. Rutherford, The Death of a Christian, 2nd ed., 62–63.

  • 17. Rutherford, The Death of a Christian, 2nd ed., 93–104.

  • 18. Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial, 79.

  • 19. W. D. Maxwell, John Knox’s Genevan Service Book of 1556 (Edinburgh, 1931), 163–164, cited by Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial, 82.

  • 20. Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial, 82.

  • 21. Karen Westerfield Tucker, “Christian Rituals Surrounding Death,” in Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship, Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence Hoffman, eds. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 200.

  • 22. Thomas Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 72–76.

  • 23. Long, Accompany Them with Singing, 173.

  • 24. Rowell, The Liturgy of Christian Burial, 113–114.

  • 25. Arnold van Gennep, Les rites de passage (Paris: É. Nourry, 1909).

  • 26. Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 94.

  • 27. Paxton, Christianizing Death, 17.

  • 28. Mark Searle and Kenneth W. Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).

  • 29. Conor McCarthy, ed., Love Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2004).

  • 30. Virginia Sloyan, ed., A Source Book About Christian Death (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1990).