What Augustine held regarding the Christian treatment of the corpse of a deceased person and prayers for the dead can be pieced together from various sources.
As to reports of actual funerals, there is the passage in the Confessions about the funeral of his mother, Monica, at Ostia. There is the account by Bishop Evodius, a friend of Augustine, of the mourning and burial of one of his priests. And there is a brief description of the burial of Augustine in the Life of Augustine by Possidius. Two beliefs made African Christian rituals of death distinct from those of the pagan Roman culture: the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, and the claim that the pagan cult of the dead was a form of idol worship. The first is evident in the nature of the care given by Christians to the corpse. The body was washed, and then wrapped with oil and spices. Following Jewish rather than Roman tradition, the body was buried instead of cremated. Burial happened in a separate area within a public cemetery, or in a separate Christian cemetery.
With Christians there is no evidence of a more elaborate embalming as if to show belief in a continuing existence after death within the same physical body. Christians believed that a dead person would receive a new glorified body that was incorruptible. The Christian rejection of the cult of idols is evident in the refusal to place garlands or crowns on the corpse, and in the denial of the offering of sacrifices to the dead. The sermons of Augustine do indicate, however, that some nominal Christians were following funeral practices which reflected pagan rather than Christian ideals. In these instances, the corpse was wrapped in expensive robes, and carried to the grave on an elaborate bed. It was followed by crowds of mourning dependents, and placed in an expensive tomb. In recounting the funeral of his mother, Monica at Ostia near Rome, Augustine explained that the Eucharist was celebrated at the grave site before her burial. He specified that this was the Italian custom and thus implied that it was not also the practice in Africa.
By the time Augustine wrote the Confessions, the African bishops had forbidden the celebration of the Eucharist in the presence of a corpse. This prohibition had become necessary to stop the occasional practice of placing the eucharistic bread in the mouth of the dead, as a viaticum that replaced the pagan tradition of placing a coin in the mouth of the corpse to pay the fare of Charon. Church legislation specified that sacrifice could be offered for the dead, however, as long as the clergy and mourners were still fasting and had not yet taken their first meal at midday. It therefore appears that the earlier African custom may also have been to celebrate the Eucharist at the grave before burial.
Possidius wrote that the Eucharist was celebrated prior to the burial of Augustine. He implied that it involved those who had been present at his death rather than an extensive gathering of invited colleagues. Previously Augustine and Alypius had both campaigned to restrict the funeral feasts which had become a regular practice of African Christians. They succeeded in forbidding special dinners to celebrate the anniversaries of martyrs.
They attempted to modify rather than prevent the meals of bread and wine that were being held at the tombs of the ordinary dead, either on the anniversary of death or during the parentalia, the Roman festival of ancestors. These two bishops suggested that the food brought to the tombs of deceased loved ones would please the Christian dead if given as alms to some poor people in their memory, rather than by being poured out or consumed at their tomb. Augustine strongly attacked the lavish funerals of the nominally-Christian wealthy.
He gently added, however, that the care lavished on the bodies of the dead and the decoration of their tombs did not directly benefit the dead, but only offered solace to the family members still living. Instead, he said that prayers and the helping of poor people in the name of the departed would provide real solace to the dead. He insisted that Christians understand what even the thinking pagans had already come to know: the dead receive no benefit from the bread and wine placed on the tomb. Finally, Augustine fully approved the practices of mourning and intercession for the dead. His regret over his grief at the death of Monica is widely known.
But after years as a pastor, Augustine recognised and approved the customs of mourning in the face of death. He argued from the Bible that, except in special cases of divine intervention, the dead knew nothing more of the living than the living did of the dead. In this, however, Augustine seems to have been preaching against the dominant belief of the people in his church at Hippo. Some Christians in Hippo believed that the dead continued to be involved in the affairs of the living, because they said the dead had appeared in their dreams to give them advice and warning.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery about Pavia (where rest the mortal remains of St Augustine), click here.