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The Death of Strangers and the Life of the Community in Eastern Christian Thought

Maria Doerfler, Duke University, Summer Fellow 2013/14

­My research this summer focused on the rhetorical and theological significance of the so-called pandektai in sixth-century Antioch and its surroundings. Dubbed “strangers’ graves” in Syriac, these cemeteries accommodated the bodies of those who died on foreign soil, separated from the families or communities that would have normally assumed responsibility for ­­a person's inhumation and commemoration. These cemeteries, curiously, are preserved for us as textual far more than as archaeological sites. While excavations in the eastern Roman provinces have begun to shed light on puzzles in the historical record, mass graves of anonymously buried men and women of limited means, lacking either structural or epigraphical treasure, hold limited promise for archaeological inquiry. By contrast, the bodies of strangers and the graves that housed them intrude upon a wide range of texts from the fifth and sixth centuries, including homilies, liturgical compositions, and hagiographical accounts.

My work at Dumbarton Oaks and the article I am writing offer the first systematic examination of these sources. This study has proved exceedingly productive not only for assessing the social and economic conditions of Eastern cities in the later parts of Late Antiquity, but also for providing glimpses at the still-nascent theological imagination surrounding the afterlife and the community’s liturgical and practical role therein. Late ancient writers like Severus of Antioch frequently insisted that the individual alone bore responsibility for her soul’s fate after death. Severus’s and his contemporaries’ emphasis on the church’s ritual accompaniment of the anonymous (and, accordingly, religiously and morally indeterminate) dead nevertheless illuminates an understanding of the afterlife that was both more communally oriented and more reflective of popular theological conceptions.


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Byzantine Studies Fellows, 2013/14