Reg Henry's column on American "idiocy" demonstrates the fact that many American customs remain connected to the ancient world ("Like It or Not, Terrorists Deserve a Burial," May 8). "Funeral rites" are among rituals that have changed very little over the last several thousand years.
Denying burial rites to someone comes from the ancient world.
Particularly in ancient Rome, any convicted criminal who was executed in the arenas was also denied proper burial rites (and usually just disposed of in the Tiber river). The idea was that a criminal should be punished for "eternity." Without proper burial rites, you could never cross the river Styx into Hades, and be condemned to "wander" as a lifeless ghost forever.
The other ancient concept at play here is the obvious conclusion that, like the ancients, a majority of Americans believe that there must be some form of "existence" after death, and that the dead can still influence the living -- this was, in fact, the basis upon which burial rites were originally created; if the proper rites were carried out, then the dead person would be kind to the survivors and not bring danger to the household.
When early Christian martyrs died in the arenas, they would be condemned to eternal punishment. But we also know that another ancient "tradition" was bribery. There is evidence that some wealthy Christian women bribed officials to obtain the bodies of martyrs, which were then usually buried on their estate -- this was the beginning of many of the Christian catacombs that became the site of Christian pilgrimage shrines.
REBECCA I. DENOVA
The writer is a lecturer in the history of early Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh.