Records of burials are as old as mankind itself, but Christianity radically changed all the customs around interment, and linked death inextricably with religious rituals and blessings. Before one’s death, one had to be absolved of sins (by confession and penance) and receive the Last Rites, and where there was imminent likelihood of death (e.g. when going off to do battle) Extreme Unction was given ‘just in case’.
One’s final resting place was also of importance. The best places were deemed to be inside a church (in the walls or under the floor), followed by closest proximity – hence cemeteries sprang up right next to churches, often in the very centre of the village. The cemetery (hallowed ground) became an integral part of towns and villages and a regular meeting place for people, where they even traded and closed contracts. There was no sense of bereavement as we know it today – the dead and the living coexisted side by side. Only suicides, criminals, the sick, heretics, executioners, unidentified strangers and unbaptised children were buried outside the cemetery, in unhallowed ground. During plague epidemics and wars, the customary funerals were done away with, temporarily, with a frequent need for mass graves. In later centuries, for reasons of hygiene and contamination of underground water, most of the old cemeteries were abolished, even involving exhumation and reinterring outside of town.
It was common for those facing death to make at least an oral will, and also to forfeit some of their assets, if they had any, to the Church for ‘facilitating’ their passage to the next world.
Burial of commoners was conducted in simple wooden boxes or sacks, with the deceased being wrapped in a shroud. Funerals of the wealthy and ruling classes were a different matter entirely; these were costly, ostentatious ceremonies with all attendant pomp and circumstance. (Royal funerals were attended by thousands of people). Wealthy families had their final resting places (in the church or crypt) marked by tombstones, while the custom of the mausoleum came later.

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