What Is the Symbolism of Throwing Dirt on a Coffin?

Placing soil in a grave during a funeral rite is a somber experience symbolizing a variety of cultural and religious meanings. Mourners often use the custom to lean on each other for support and to fully commit themselves to the funeral service. Funeral homes, rabbis, ministers, and officiants help guide the participants through prayer before the final moments of the symbolic act of placing dirt over the casket to pay final respects during the internment ceremony.

Jewish Customs

Many Jewish communities gather to throw three or 13 spadefuls of dirt during a burial. The idea relates to the three soul levels called nefesh, ruach and neshamah. The use of 13 spadefuls relates to the passage in Psalm 78:38 that is recited during a burial. Customs vary by community. For instance, in traditional ceremonies, mourners each place three shovels of soil in the grave. Jewish mourners can gather to make burial a communal process to ease their grief and gather support. Some Jewish customs encourage the grieving to use the back of the shovel as a sign of despair and reluctance. A more recent Jewish custom involves pouring three scoops of sand from a funeral urn in the grave.

Egyptian Influences

Christian culture also includes putting dirt on the casket as part of the burial ritual. Often you will hear the phrase, "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust" meaning that the body turns to dust when the soul is released. The words may be said when dirt is placed on the casket. The custom is thought ot have originated with the early Egyptians who paced sand on the body before burial.

Final Resting Place

Placing dirt on a casket can symbolize the deceased returning to the earth as a final resting place. Many cultures and religions believe that man was born of the earth and returns when he dies. Often a family member or spouse will throw the first handful of dirt while other family members and friends follow suit.

Expressing Sympathy

Sprinkling dirt on a casket at a funeral can have non-religious connotations. Some mourners are looking for a way to connect to the experience, offer a gesture of respect to the deceased and his family, and share grief with others. They might sign a guest book, tell stories about the deceased, leave flowers, or participate in placing dirt in the ground as a symbolic gesture of shared mourning.

Finality and Closure

Many mourners throw dirt on a grave to symbolize the finality of the moment. They have paid their last respects and are participating in the ceremony's closing. The grave is sprinkled with dirt, and the rest of the grave will be filled in later. Afterward, mourners attend a reception or service, often at the home of a friend or family member of the deceased.