The Disappearing Grave

In many churches, the Holy Sepulcher once was as commonplace at Easter as the crèche was at Christmas. It isn’t anymore.

Epitaphios (photo: Kari Jokinen / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL)

This essay is not about the theological significance of Easter or the Paschal Mystery, which makes human graves temporary (not permanent), two-way (not one-way) streets.

Nor is it about the eventual end of human graves when, at the end of the world, “all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22), though — given what they have chosen for themselves — one can ask of the damned, “What kind of life is that?”

Nor is this essay a commentary on new American ways in death, where cremation and newer methods of bodily destruction, like alkaline hydrolysis and recomposting, increasingly treat as irrelevant the significance of a grave as a “resting place.”

No, this essay is about what once used to be a Catholic custom that seems to have fallen in recent years into disuse: the presence of representations of the Holy Sepulcher in our churches.

Once upon a time, particularly in ethnic parishes whose parishioners hailed from Central Europe, the practice of erecting a Tomb of Christ near the altar was typical. It was often a point of prayer, especially on Good Friday and Holy Saturday (when the Eucharist is removed from the church tabernacle). In some parishes, societies (especially men’s) like the Holy Name Society would take turn posting a “guard” at the Tomb. On Easter, it was decked out in lilies, usually with a statue of the Risen Christ above it, carrying his banner of victory.

The Holy Sepulcher once was as commonplace at Easter as the crib or crèche was at Christmas. It isn’t anymore.


While there is arguably no direct reason why this tradition has been increasingly abandoned, there may be some factors that contributed to it.

The Easter Vigil itself may have been one. Although the Church emphasizes that this is the most significant liturgy of the liturgical year on its greatest solemnity, one must remember that, in many of the Central European countries where the Holy Sepulcher tradition was most rooted, so, too, was the first Easter Mass at dawn. Easter Mass at dawn, like Protestant “Easter Sunrise Services,” sought to capture the idea of Christ rising from the tomb in the early hours of Easter Sunday. 

In the ancient Church, the Easter Vigil we celebrate often lasted a good part of the night, to conclude somewhere near dawn. (St. Paul didn’t have today’s rubrics allowing omission of this reading or that or this shortened form of lection or prayer “in pastoral necessity.”) While the typical Easter Vigil is probably a parish’s longest liturgy of the year, it also typically ends by midnight, if not before. It took time for people to assimilate the idea that this is truly Easter. (I wonder how many Catholics in the United States think of it not as a “vigil,” which is supposed to be both lengthy and nocturnal, but rather as an overly long Saturday night anticipated Mass?)

Now, the fact that we Catholics mark the beginning of Easter with the Easter Vigil should not preclude setting up Holy Sepulchers in our churches. Just change the time when we add the lilies. But that hasn’t happened.

Another reason seems to be an exaggerated reading of two Vatican documents. In 1988, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a circular letter, “Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feast.” Its purpose was to explain and link clearly the theology and liturgies of Lent and Eastertide. Paragraph 55, which discusses the Altar of Repose to which the Blessed Sacrament is to be transferred after the Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, underscores that the site is to be a place for reservation of the Holy Eucharist. It is explicitly not to be made or decorated in the image of the Holy Sepulcher: “The place where the tabernacle or pyx is situated must not be made to resemble a tomb, and the expression ‘tomb’ and is to be avoided: for the chapel of repose is not prepared so as to represent the Lord’s burial but for the custody of the Eucharistic bread that will be distributed in Communion on Good Friday.” 

Now, I am not familiar with any parishes that did that since, on Holy Thursday night, Jesus was still alive in the Garden of Gethsemane. But perhaps some folks took “altar of repose” as an allusion to the Tomb. All that suggests is they need an explanation of things. 

The same Congregation’s 2001 “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy” repeats but develop the same cautions about turning the altar of repose into a Holy Sepulcher. It admits that how these ideas might have come to be conflated is “not entirely clear,” explicitly says not to call the altar a “sepulcher,” and forbids any appearance of a “tomb or funerary urn” (no. 141). It also recommends what was just written above: “It is necessary to instruct the faithful on the meaning of reposition …” i.e., what it is and isn’t. 

The “Directory” observes that, in some places, there exists a custom for a late Good Friday procession of the “dead Christ” to a tomb, usually “conducted in austere silence, prayer, and the participation of many of the faithful …” (no. 142).

Neither document says anything about a self-standing Tomb erected just for that purpose. It says nothing about such a representation of the Holy Sepulcher in a church on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. So, as long as one is not confusing the Altar of Repose with the Holy Sepulcher or detracting from awareness that the Easter Vigil actually celebrates the Lord’s exit from the Tomb, that’s all the norms seem to require.

But I suspect there’s another factor at play here. The “Directory” was, in its time, a welcome document because it recognized that the Church had a rich tradition of popular piety that had a place in its life. That was progress because, in the decades immediately after Vatican II, a certain mentality saw popular devotions pejoratively, things to be sidelined and eventually suppressed lest they detract from the centrality of the liturgy. 

That mentality was wrong because it failed to recognize inculturation of piety as part of the Church’s history, and that liturgy should be supplemented (not supplanted) by popular traditions that represent how concrete people’s make the Christian faith present in their lives and cultures. Yes, the liturgy has primacy. But would we tell anybody “saying the Liturgy of the Hours suffices, all those ‘private prayers of yours’ are optional?” That would be an extremely distorted approach to prayer.

I think, however, that there’s a certain residue of that mentality in the “Directory.” Right after discussing some of these practices, the “Directory” warns: “It is necessary … to ensure that such manifestations of popular piety, either by time or the manner in which the faithful are convoked, do not become a surrogate for the liturgical celebrations of Good Friday.” It especially warns that “integration of the ‘dead Christ’ procession with the solemn liturgical action of Good Friday should be avoided for such would constitute a distorted celebrative hybrid” (no. 143).

Agreed. But in the United States, Good Friday is a holiday in none but a handful of states. Many parishes have shifted the Liturgy to the evening hours because Christ’s time of death does not meet the demands of the American workday. Yes, the Liturgy has priority. But this constant suspicion of popular piety in fact demotes its significance not in terms of its objective relation to the liturgy but in terms of a certain subjective disdain that one might think such “folk” customs (the Directory uses that word — no. 144 — in reference to some popular practices during the Triduum that it thinks the folklore or touristic aesthetic has overgrown genuine piety) dare “compete” with the liturgy. That mindset represents the opposite extreme of “liturgy is the priest’s business” mindset of perhaps an earlier generation of Catholics which — except in some liturgist’s minds — seems to have died about 50 years ago, not by proper liturgical catechesis but by strangulation of popular devotions to “eliminate the competition.” 

Finally, one general criticism of post-Vatican II liturgies has been their “celebrant-centric” focus, i.e., they sometimes seem to highlight the priest rather than God. Apart from the fact that babies elicit sentimentality, has the Christmas crèche fared better because no small number of Midnight Mass celebrants carry “Baby Jesus” in the entrance procession to be installed in the manger, whereas there is no equivalent opportunity in the Easter Vigil? (The Easter Vigil begins with the lighting and procession of the Paschal Candle.) But the priest doesn’t need to “put” the victorious Christ in the Tomb any more than he needs to “deliver” him to the crib. 

All these factors seem to have chipped away at the tradition of parish Holy Sepulchers at Easter. In an age where funerals are scheduled at the convenience of mourners, photographs substitute for coffins and ashes, humus, or fluid for bodies, what do representations of Our Lord’s Tomb in our parishes at Easter — not empty but gone — say?  

Register illustration by Melissa Hartog

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