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Burial Customs

Source:
The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Burial Customs

    A part of the story of Abraham is the record of his concern and care for the burying of Sarah (Gen. 23). He buys a cave for her tomb; this purchase is his first land acquisition in the land of Canaan. The Hittites offered one of their sepulchers, but Abraham preferred to buy and utilize his own cave. For those outside the Promised Land, burial in the ancestral territory continued to be important. For example, the body of Joseph was embalmed in Egypt and returned to Canaan (Gen. 50.26). In like manner, many Jews of the Dispersion of the Roman period preferred to be buried in the Holy Land. The burial customs and practices, as with Abraham, were carried out amid outside cultural influences but yet maintained their own distinctiveness.

    Tomb construction saw considerable change and variety. Abraham, as noted above, used a cave. In later periods tombs were cut from the rock. Jesus mentions “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23.27), which implies buildings. One of the few monuments from the first century CE still intact in Jerusalem is the so‐called Tomb of Absalom, a monument that exhibits both Greek and Nabatean influence. Extended families often had a single connected cluster of underground tombs with niches for the various individuals or families. Often these were reused. Individual rock‐cut tombs were also common. The bodies were generally not enclosed in coffins; after decomposition the remaining bones were then removed to a bone chamber in the floor or at the side of the burial ledge and the space reused. Rock tombs were sealed with a hinged door or a heavy wheel‐shaped stone. Criminals were buried under a pile of stones.

    With regard to the preparation of the body for burial, neither embalming (an Egyptian custom) nor cremation (called idolatry in m. ʿAbod. Zar. 1.3) was allowed. The body was washed (Acts 9.37) and enclosed (John 19.40), and finally a napkin was placed over the face (John 20.7). The Greek custom of individual coffins was occasionally followed in New Testament times; the earlier period did not use coffins.

    Secondary burial, in which the remains, after decomposition, were placed in a small stone or clay box called an ossuary, gradually increased over time. A coffin (sarcophagus) averaged 1.8 m (6 ft) in length, while the ossuary was often only .8 m (2.5 ft) long. Many tombs had numerous small niches (Hebr. kôkîm) into which the ossuaries were placed. Considerable new evidence on burial customs has been gleaned from the excavations of the extensive Jewish cemetery at Beth Shearim, where secondary burials dominated. Often the ossuaries were decorated with various geometrical patterns. Roman Jericho has yielded a significant collection of wooden coffins. It seems likely that the biblical phrase “to sleep with [or to be gathered to] one's ancestors” refers to secondary burial in the family tomb.

    Burial in the Middle East has always taken place without delay; almost always the person is buried the same day. The warm climate and the lack of embalming has necessitated this practice. In the case of the burial of Jesus, the approaching Sabbath added to the desire to complete the burial formalities before sundown (cf. Deut. 21.23).

    The Middle East has long known the tradition of demonstrative mourning. The walls of ancient Egyptian tombs often depict groups of professional women mourners as a part of the funeral procession. This profession was also known in Israel; Jeremiah explains the purpose of the presence of evocative funeral songs sung by the professionals: “that our eyes may run down with tears” (Jer. 9.18). Instruments used at funerals included the flute (Matt. 9.23); Rabbi Judah (140–165 CE) said, “Even the poorest in Israel should hire not less than two flutes and one wailing woman” (m. Ketub. 4.4).

    The Bible records a number of poems composed for the deceased, the most famous being David's lament over Saul and *Jonathan (2 Sam. 1.18–27). The prophets use the funeral lament satirically in speaking of the ruin of nations such as Babylon, Tyre, and Egypt (e.g., Isa. 14.4–21; Ezek. 27; 32), and the book of Lamentations uses the genre for Jerusalem after its destruction in 587/586 BCE.

    In biblical tradition mourning continued for seven days (Gen. 50.10). The places of burial were generally apart from the dwellings of the people; in earlier periods some burials took place within the house. While the Egyptians made elaborate preparations for the dead and placed the surroundings of life in the tomb of the deceased, these customs were kept to a minimum in Palestine. Tombs were comparatively modest and ostentation was criticized (Isa. 22.15–16). Eighty percent of the tomb inscriptions in the Beth Shearim cemetery are in Greek, yet the inscriptions themselves display a minimum of Greek ideological influence. Resurrection as a concept remains dominant over the idea of the immortality of the soul (see also Afterlife and Immortality.)

    Kenneth E. Bailey

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