Sarah Bond on the Church and Funerals in Late Antiquity
Date: October 6th, 2013

It has been said that the only thing certain in life are death and taxes.  If that is the case, then Dr. Sarah Bond — assistant professor of history at Marquette University — has discovered a very interesting topic for research.  Prof. Bond examines the changes to the funeral industry that occured in the Late Antiquity portion of the Roman Empire resulting from Constantine’s Edict of Milan.  Through the course of this interview, we find out that workers in the “death industry” received some pretty sweet tax exemptions for their service.  And this wasn’t the only noteworthy item about the lives of what Sarah refers to as “disreputable workers.”

We begin with a discussion of Sarah’s general work on “disreputable professions” in ancient times, and she defines what this term means — careers in occupations that most people find distasteful and whose workers tend to remain “invisible,” yet critically important, to society.  Funeral workers are the classic example of such a profession given that their contact with the deceased (who often die in violent or vile ways) conveys a sense of “death pollution” on them.  Sarah notes that in pagan times, funeral workers were required to live outside of the city walls and would only be allowed into the city under the cover of dark to retrieve bodies.  We discuss several of the other traditions associated with death at the time, including the preference for cremation over inhumation (i.e., burial).

With the rise of Emperor Constantine (and his co-Emperor Licinius in the East), things begin to change.  The Edict of Milan puts Christianity on an equal footing as pagan religions, and soon thereafter the Church begins to see a flood of state financial support.  Being a bishop now conveys more political and economic power in the Empire, and with it come changes in how the funeral industry operates.  Sarah discusses how stronger patron-client relationships between bishops and funeral workers emerge, and how these funeral workers were often employed as personal “gangs” or “para-militaries” for the Church hierarchs.  Some of the stories are incredible!  Along the way, we also are given a sense for who is all involved in the funeral process, including paid mourners.  Sarah teaches Tony a number of very cool Latin words.  Prof. Bond also talks about the Cult of the Saints, and how the desire by wealthy people to be buried near a Christian saint, and the general lack of burial space (a scarce commodity), led to a great deal of corruption.  Tony, ever the political economists, points out that this is an excellent example of rent-seeking behavior wherein a small group with coercive power controls access to a scarce resource and can extract all sorts of additional income and favors in exchange for that access.

Dr. Bond concludes our podcast with her reflections on what the study of the death industry and other “disreputable professions” in Late Antiquity can teach us about our current conditions.  While the institutions of funeral services have changed over time, she notes that we still have certain cultural visions about people who provide these valuable services to society.  Tell your friends about this truly fascinating discussion as it has valuted upwards to become one of Tony’s favorite podcasts over the course of 170 other interviews.  Please connect with us via our Facebook Fan Page for regular updates.  Recorded: October 3, 2013.


Sarah Bond’s webpage at Marquette University.


Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers and Patristic Exegisis.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part I.

Brian O’Neel on Saint Who?

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