How does being buried in a church building work?

I just got back from a trip to England (it was fabulous, thanks for asking!). It included many visits to big ancient churches, including Westminster Abbey.

Now it’s not like I’ve never heard of being entombed in a church or come across it a few times in America. I just never thought about it much.

But man those medieval churches, you could barely move without walking over somebody’s grave (in fact the “Would you let your kid play in a graveyard?” thread reminded me I wanted to ask this).

So what exactly happens? Those big above ground vaults, did they/do they really just stick a dead body in there and smack a lid on it? Was there ever a smell? A frisson of revulsion from being close to a decomposing body?

And for the floors, just pry up some stones, dig down, place body, replace floor stones?

Was there/is there ever an etiquette of not walking on the graves?

What’s the deal?

I would mention that during the middle-ages for instance, a cemetery wasn’t off-limit for most activities, so many people would hang up there for various reasons, including for instance prostitution. Also, bones were dug up as needed and piled up in some part of the cemetery, often in plain view (remember Hamlet just picking up a skull off the ground). As a result, people would be much more accustomed to be around tombs and remains (and smell, I guess). So, I doubt they were much bothered by the concept of having tombs under the church’s floor, either.

I wouldn’t know but given :

1)How worn up old engraved tombstones in churches are and

2)As you say, in many churches, you hardly can walk anywhere without stepping on such a tomb
I doubt there was such an etiquette.

I kinda like what they did in Christianskirke in Copenhagen. There are crypts on the lower level, and various prominent Danes just sort of shoved sarcophagi, monuments, etc., in there. It’s basically God’s storage locker.

Here’s what I don’t get: When I was in college, I learned that composer Henry Purcell was buried in Westminster Abbey, beneath the organ.

How did they dig a hole in the choir loft without the grave diggers falling through and getting seriously hurt?

in Churches like westminister abby wouldn’t they just place the coffin in an underground crypt and place the headstone above ground in the public area of the church.

I don’t imagine the bodies are really right underneath the floor where the inscription is or next to each headstone in the walls.

I assume by your confusion that the organ is in the loft (I don’t know and I can’t find a good picture), but looking at the Westminster Abbey’s website it says “The Harrison and Harrison organ of Westminster Abbey was installed for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937…snip…The earliest evidence of any organ in the Abbey dates from 1304, referring to ‘a pair of organs’ in the Lady Chapel. From the late sixteenth century there was an organ in the Quire, of which no accurate details survive, but it was certainly played by John Blow and Henry Purcell – two of the most eminent names amongst the list of distinguished Organists of Westminster Abbey (see below). A new organ, built for the Coronation of George II in 1727, was re-located and placed on the central screen at the entrance to the Quire. This was replaced in 1848 by the Hill organ, built on the North and South sides of the Nave Screen where the Harrison and Harrison instrument now stands. The two organ cases, built originally for the Hill organ in 1895 by the architect J.L. Pearson, were coloured and reinstated in 1959.”

Henry Purcell died in 1695 so he would have been buried next to some organ installed in the Quire (no idea what that is or means) in the 1500’s and in a different location then the one in the loft if I’m reading this right.

Here’s something about the Quire (also, I just got the quire/choir thing when I was reading it.:smack:

Maybe it is in the same location. Like I said, I can’t find good pictures, but WMA’s website confirms it at least. Are you sure the organ is in a loft?

I think so, but its somewhat confusing because the style in the middle-ages was “chest tombs” which look like an above-ground sarcophagus that very well could hold some remains, but usually the person was actually buried underneath it.

Why not? Plenty of churches don’t have a crypt.

When I was a child, my parents taught me to avoid walking on graves when visiting those of my grandparents. Of course, this was in a US cemetery, and there’s usually enough room to avoid the plot entirely or just step on the edges.

As for Purcell, “buried under the organ” would not refer to being entombed below the organ console (Keyboards and pedals used for playing it) but beneath the ranks of pipes that comprise the actual pipe organ, to which the console was connected by mechanical, pneumatic, or in modern times electrical means.

No, but I’m sure you completely ruined my joke…


Well, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with, but still…

I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not, but if it was, yes, I got it. If it wasn’t, there’s a possible explanation.

No, they’re actually buried underneath the flagstone with the inscription. There was all kinds of jostling, jockeying and protocol about who would get to be buried in what particular (often symbolically significant) position.

Usually the bodies in those were accompanied by quicklime to help them decompose without much of a smell; they’d decompose chemically rather than rotting biologically. As for revulsion, there have been squicky people since the start of time, I guess. Well, since there have been people :), time started sooner.

Well, no, since the majority of those are engraved, but other than the engraving and quicklime, yeah.

Quite the opposite. Part of the “point” of being buried in the ground, and specifically in “areas of passage” was as a reminder of the whole “you are dust and dust you shall become”, “you are only as much as The Lord has made you” and so forth. “It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, sooner or later even the humblest of hobos will step on your bones.” Of course and like so many other things originally intended for humility or modesty, it got reverted (the jostling for position mentioned by Mangetout).
A fragment from 14th-or-15th Century Romance del Conde Niño (o del Conde Nuño):

Él murió a la media noche,
ella a los gallos cantar;
a ella como hija de reyes
la entierran en el altar,
a él como hijo de conde
unos pasos más atrás.

He died at midnight,
she when the roosters crowed,
she as the daughter of kings
was buried at the altar,
him as the son of counts
a few steps further back.

Exactly what was meant by Purcell being buried beneath the organ, isn’t entirely clear, because the form of the organ - which had only recently been rebuilt by Bernard Smith - isn’t certain. Neither it nor its predecessor appear in any of the (very limited number of) illustrations of the Abbey interior from that period, but those do appear to rule out the possibility that it was centrally located above the choir screen. That Purcell was buried in the north aisle, behind the choir stalls, is actually the best evidence that it was instead located there. But no one is quite sure.

In the case of Westminster Abbey, it depends. In the main bit of the Abbey (the nave, chancel, transepts etc.), the bodies are buried directly beneath the floor. That’s also the case in most other English churches.

But in Westminster Abbey there are burial vaults beneath the Henry VII Chapel. That’s because it is built significantly above ground level. However, most of those vaults can be accessed only by lifting the floor above.

So are Henry and his wife actually in the big gaudy sarcophagus-looking thing, or are they below the floor level that all the tourists are walking around on? Would you just need to slide the lid off to have a looksey?

I like the explanation Dave Barry gave. "Maybe it was raining when they had the funeral, and somebody said “What the hell, let’s bury hi m right here in the church!”

Actually, they’ve discovered a literal treasure trove of remains under Boston’s Old North Church in the North End (The one with the “one if by land, two if by sea” steeple), and for the past few years they’ve been examining and clasifying the remains, which include soldiers (from both sides) who died at Bunker Hill.

In the sarcophagus, given its size.

The sarcophagi of the lovers of Teruel and of Sancho VII and his second wife have holes (I can’t find a pic where the holes in Sancho’s can be seen), you can see the bones inside.

They’re below the floor level in a sealed vault. Their case illustrates one of the advantages of that arrangement. The proposed layout of the chapel was altered after Elizabeth and later Henry had already been buried, after the plan to build a shrine to Henry VI was abandoned. It was only then that their son, Henry VIII, commissioned Torrigiano to build the tomb.

There could be quite a gap between a burial and the construction of the monument, so it often made sense to bury the body below the floor even if something visible was intended.