Old Testament Burial Customs
29 SEP 2017
Before the time of Abraham, little is known about the burial customs of the Jewish people. The Scriptures’ first reference to burial is in Genesis 23:3-4, after the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, when Abraham says, “Give me possession of a burying place . . . that I may bury my dead.”
Burials were usually completed quickly after death, even on the same day of the deceased’s passing. The story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira in the book of Acts illustrates the immediacy of burying the deceased after their death. In this example, both Ananias and Sapphira “breathe [their] last” and are immediately carried out and buried. Burial was sometimes delayed because of the Sabbath.
2 Preparing the Body
After death, the body was laid out, either on the ground or over sand and salt. The eyes and mouth were securely closed and the body was washed. The hair and nails were trimmed, and then the deceased was anointed with oils and ointment. Finally, the body was dressed. Sometimes the body was wrapped in linen with spices enclosed, while other times the body was dressed in fine clothes. Soldiers were usually buried in full uniform.
The ideal of a decent burial was important in most ancient cultures, as the idea of being left unburied and vulnerable to animals and birds of prey was shameful. It was especially desirable to be buried in one’s native land and, if possible, with one’s ancestors. Because cremation was believed to be a pagan practice, the Jews did not cremate their dead. There was also a superstition that the soul could feel what was done to the body, and this was further discouragement against cremation. Mosaic law dictated that Jews bury their dead, not burn the dead bodies, as such burning was reserved for punishment or judgment. Jacob and his son, Joseph, were embalmed in Egypt upon their deaths, but embalming was not generally practiced among the Jews. This was an Egyptian practice.
In Biblical times, tombs were often caves or hollowed-out hovels in the earth that were meant to house eight bodies or more. The entrance to a tomb was usually sealed with a door or large stone. Many times, where a body was buried depended greatly on who the deceased’s family was. For example, at the time of his wife’s death, Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah at Hebron to be her burial site. When Abraham died, he was buried in the same tomb. Later, Isaac, Abraham’s son, was also buried there, and Jacob, Isaac’s son, was laid to rest there. There are references in Scripture to individuals who were buried alone, but this was often due to the fact that they died suddenly and in a place that was far away from their ancestral tomb. Bodies that were not placed in tombs were buried in shallow graves that were covered with heaps of rocks, which marked the grave and prevented the body from being disturbed.
Burial places were often located outside a city’s boundary, so the deceased had to be carried from their home to the burial site. Often, the dead were carried on a bier, which may have been a wooden slab. Much like modern day pallbearers, it was family members and friends who carried the bier. Women led the funeral procession, and often hired mourners and musicians accompanied the procession and made a demonstrative presentation of grief. At the tomb, an oration would be delivered, and the body would be laid to rest.