The burial practices at Saint Denis offer interesting intellectual and religious links between peoples, who inhabited the same land, just thousands of years apart. The earliest remains of human life at Saint Denis were found by archeologists beneath the current basilica: a woman’s grave, dating back to the Early Neolithic era (ca. 4700 BC). The positioning of her skeleton in the fetal position facing the rising sun suggests to us the worldview of these people: that death equates to a return to the womb of mother earth, and that death might also serve as a new beginning—a rebirth of sorts.
Interestingly, 5000 years later in the Christian era, bodies were buried similarly, suggesting that despite the shift in ideologies and religions over time, Christianity kept a dynamic rapport with its preceding cultures. Like the Neolithic body, the corpses in the Christian necropolis (ca. 500 AD) also faced east—preserving this idea of death as new beginning, that with the dawn comes new life. What’s more, many strictly pagan traditions were continued such as placing a coin in the corpse’s mouth for the deceased soul to use in paying the toll for Charon, the ferryman, to take one across the river Styx and into Hades. Our online resource offers little resolution as why these practices were continued, saying, “Nevertheless, one wonders whether the Merovingians who continued to practice this ritual were aware of its original meaning.” Do I know why these Christians kept up these practices? No, but I find it equally hard to believe that people were ‘going through the motions’ of burial, especially concerning pagan practices not imported by the dominant Christian ideology.
I think these early Christians were aware of what they were doing, and not despite their religious conviction to the Christian faith, but precisely because of it. As Augustine instructs in his On Christian Doctrine, pagan culture is like Egyptian gold—which, although formed into idols of false worship, can be reforged (not destroyed) into a true temple of God. Christianity is not about narrow-mindedness, but about embracing all that is True, Good, and Beautiful—even if another culture discovered it before you—because all the is True, Good, and Beautiful belongs to God.
It’s really quite a modern notion to believe that Christianity (or religion in general) oppressed people from living life fully. Rather, religion offers people the iconographic vocabulary for interpreting and coping with this thing called human existence—precisely for that reason of living life more fully. In a nutshell, Christianity isn’t the intolerant religion of the Dark Ages that through the blind faith of the Crusaders committed mass murder against those of other ideologies (as many people often pass of the Middle Ages), but rather, Christianity attempts to be a truly universal (catholic in its original sense) religion because its aim is to embrace the redemption/reorientation of every human experience toward a Good Ultimate End.
The appeal of the Christian religion was not that it offered people status, wealth, power and political security. (In fact, the reverse would seem true since the acceptance of Christianity could not protect even the Roman Empire from collapsing.) The appeal of the Christian religion is in its unique ability to embrace culture, traditions, and stories that either point at a truth or have the potential of being redirected toward Truth, and Saint Denis, I believe, is no exception. Christ spoke in parables not to impress everyone with his allegorical wit, but to offer people glimpses of Truth without getting bogged down in doctrinal issues. It’s no wonder the spiritual bigots of his day wanted him hanged—Christ was too open-minded.