Graves appear throughout the cave churches of Cappadocia. These are oval pits dug into the floors and walls of churches where dead saints were buried. Why were people buried inside churches? What is the meaning and reason for these graves?
The Architecture of Graves
The process of making a grave was straightforward. They first carved an oval into the rock, about 4–5 foot in length. Ancient Byzantine Romans were only 5 feet tall, so the graves are smaller than expected. The smaller graves were for infants and children pledged to the monastery. The top portion of the pit was then carved a few inches wider to hold a flat stone, which covered the body.
Graves are most often located in the entry room (narthex) of the church. They appear in the church’s main hall (nave), typically towards the back of the room, but never in the apse. Graves were often part of the original design of the church. In such cases, an arched recess (acrosolium) was carved into the wall for the body of the deceased. However, most graves were carved into the floor after completion of the church.
On some occasions, the geological landscape required graves to be outside the church. For example, Karabulut Kilise (Zemi Valley, Göreme) was carved into a singular fairy chimney; therefore its graves are around the outside of the fairy chimney. The unique “graveyard” near Deer Monastery (Geyikli Monastir, Soğanlı) is six fairy chimneys covered with acrosolia.
Not every grave is near a church. Especially around Göreme, many acrosolia (an arched niche with a grave) stand alone, recessed into the side of a valley wall or fairy chimney.
The “funerary chapel” is a common architectural form. These are small, single-nave churches carved into the landscape, with a few graves in the narthex or nave. Funerary chapels were made primarily as private resting places, not for public worship.
Side chapels are another common feature of Cappadocian churches. These are secondary rooms carved in the north or south side of the main church. These functioned foremost as burial locations.
Some churches are so filled with graves cut into the floor; they became, in effect, small cemeteries. For example, St Basil's Chapel, St. Heiron’s Tomb (Göreme), Tatların Church, Kubbeli Church (Soğanlı), and St. George (Ihlara Valley) are all filled with burial tombs. Today empty pits cover the space, but originally flat tombstones tiled the floor, which meant there was little room to walk without stepping on graves.
Who Was Buried in the Churches? And Why?
We do not who was buried in most of the graves. Time has erased their names.
Names were inscribed on the flat stones covering the graves. However, none of these grave covers remain today. A few tombs do have funerary inscriptions over the tombs.
In some Cappadocian churches, a patron or monk is painted prostrating before Jesus, and near the image is a short dedicatory inscription. We surmise these patrons and monks painted onto the walls were the people buried in the church.
In Byzantine times, both imperial and church law actually prohibited the burial of lay people in churches. Therefore, people buried in churches were either holy saints or financial patrons.
Most people buried in (or near) Cappadocian churches were monks. There are several reasons for this. Byzantine Christians often became monks at the end of their lives, such as when retiring or becoming deathly ill. These elderly people expected a proper burial from their fellow monks. The monastery’s founding monk or abbot was venerated with a distinguished burial. Churches with the graves of famous monks/saints became pilgrimage sites. Christians would journey to these burial sites to receive healing or guidance. Such monastic pilgrimage sites brought prestige (and funds) to the monastery.
Patrons were also buried in churches. These wealthy people either built a new monastery for their own burial, or gave a substantial gift to an existing monastery for the right to be buried in their church (katolikon). Many monastic charter documents (typika) codify this sort of agreement.
In several Cappadocian churches, the patron was painted on the wall as a small figure prostrating at Jesus’ feet. For example, Karalık Church (Göreme) features eight such figures, two on each wall with the inscription, “A petition of God’s servant, (name).” We infer these were the people buried in the church, yet the church only has two graves.
The patron’s gift to the monastery included a stipend for the annual commemoration of their death. This money provided for extra candles in the church during the liturgy, special food for the refractory meal, and gifts for the entire community. The annual commemoration perpetuated the “name” of the deceased saint, but more importantly, thanked the monks for their continuous prayers on their behalf.
These “feast days” were significant events in the monastic community. Commemoration of the dead, whether famous saints or departed community members, was a central activity of Byzantine monasticism. Byzantine Christians sought church burials so that monks would pray for them in perpetuity. Prayers for the dead remains a common practice in Orthodox Christianity.
Why exactly did Orthodox Christians pray for the dead? Scholar and priest Timothy Ware explains, “Orthodox are convinced that Christians here on earth have a duty to pray for the departed, and they are confident that the dead are helped by such prayers. But precisely in what way do our prayers help the dead? …Here Orthodox teaching is not exactly clear, and has varied somewhat at different times” (The Orthodox Church, 259).
From an early point in Church history, Christians began venerating the dead. This practice started around 200 AD in the catacombs of Rome and spread throughout the empire. By the 4th and 5th century, churches and shrines were built over the graves of famous saints, such as St. Peter’s in Rome and St. John’s in Ephesus. These martyria became popular pilgrimage sites. Roman culture had always buried the dead outside the city, in their necropolis, but Christians grew comfortable with burying the dead within their communal spaces.
Rituals of Death and Burial
So how did Byzantine monks experience death and burial? What cultural rituals surrounded the end of life?
In the final days, the sick performed spiritual activities in preparation for the afterlife: confessing sins, accepting the Christian faith, receiving the eucharist, and welcoming the priest. After the person “fell asleep,” family members would cross their arms over the chest, then wash and perfume the body. The deceased was first dressed in fine, white clothing reflecting their identity--young people in wedding clothes, royalty in regalia, monks in robes, etc. Then they were wrapped with large pieces of cloth. This burial practice is visible in several fresco scenes featuring the dead (e.g., the Resurrection of Lazarus, Dormition of Mary, and Entombment of Jesus). The wrapped clothes were like those used to swaddle babies, thus suggesting death was the idea of “second birth” and resurrection to new life.
Then began the process of ritual lament. Female relatives wailed loudly and pulled their hair to display grief. Men pulled their beards and tore their clothes. Sometimes professional mourners were paid to cry and wail. Church leaders frowned upon dramatic and ostentatious shows of lament, as such grief showed a lack of hope in the future resurrection.
Then the body was carried to a church for the funeral service. The open casket was placed in the narthex for all to see. At the funeral of famous saints and revered monks, people crowded forward to touch the body, or even take a piece of the garment or hair as a relic.
Relatives of the deceased faced social pressure to provide a lavish funeral, as a way of honoring the dead. Funerals became so ostentatious that several Christian emperors in Byzantine history tried to regulate burial practices. They wanted all people (especially the poor) to be equally honored in death. Charitable societies, including monasteries, provided for those who died in poverty or with no family.
After the church ceremony, the dead were placed in their graves. The head was placed on the west end so when the body sat up at the resurrection, it would be facing eastward to see Jesus’ appearance. A priest blessed the resting body by pouring oil in the shape of the cross on the body. An icon or sacred book, usually Psalms, was placed on the chest. In dirt graves, they body was covered with dirt and a layer of plaster. The grave pits in Cappadocia were likely covered with a flat stone or wooden plank.
Then the family had a memorial meal. For the privileged monks and monastic patrons, this meal happened in the monastery’s dining hall (refectory). Memorial services were held on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day of death and then on each anniversary. It was an ancient Roman cultural tradition for families to visit the grave to eat a memorial meal with/for the deceased.
When the body had decomposed after a few years, the bones were exhumed, cleaned, and placed in an ossuary (a room for storing bones). This was a common practice in Byzantine monasteries and continues in Orthodox monasteries to this day. Although archeologists have not yet discovered any such ossuary in Cappadocia, the practice was very widespread. This practice suggests grave chambers would have been (re)used many times to bury many people.
Grave robbing was (and still is) a major problem. Thieves sought the expensive clothes and other valuables in the graves.
This was already a problem in the fourth-century. Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nazianzus said the rich were buried in poverty “to escape the notice of grave robbers.” Violators were punished by civil authorities (by execution or cutting off a hand) and church leaders (by excommunication for several years). Even today, treasure hunters continue to dig holes in cave churches, despite Turkey’s strict laws against illegal excavations.
Belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead was central to Byzantine notions of death and burial. Which is that Jesus will return in glory at the end of time to judge all people. At that time, bodies would be resurrected to life forever in a state of incorruptible glory. Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead is proof that God will raise the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Several painted scenes show this hope in the resurrection: the three Hebrews, Lazarus, and Anastasis (resurrection).
The funeral message reminded mourners to not grieve like people who have no hope of the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and to recall how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). Death releases mortals from the cares and pursuits of this world, into communion with Jesus and all the martyrs. Byzantine saints believed in this resurrected life.
Robert Ousterhout, “Remembering the Dead in Byzantine Cappadocia: The Architectural Settings for Commemoration,” in Architecture of Byzantium and Kievan Rus From the 9th to the 12th Centuries (2010), 87–98.
Nicholas Constas, “Death and Dying in Byzantium,” in Byzantine Christianity: A People’s History of Christianity, ed. Derek Krueger (Fortress, 2010), 124–45.