Scriptures

Jewish Burials

Introduction

Burial or interment of the dead with the Jews was quite different from our customs of today. There would have been no embalming, no casket, or a vault. There would have been no funeral services such as we usually have today. The dead were usually buried within a few hours after death. This was due to the hot climate of Palestine.

Dead bodies decayed rapidly, so burial had to take place within a few hours after the death of someone. If they died late in the day then burial would take place the next day although some were buried at night.

Most of the time burial would happen the same day as the death of a person occurring within occurring within two or three hours of their death. Again, due to the hot climate, dead bodies decayed rapidly, so burial took place within a few hours after death. Burial was never more than 24 hours from the time of death.

Considering the climate and decomposition of the body there was no time for any elaborate funeral service before burial. We can understand why Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and begged for the body of Jesus so that burial could take place almost immediately.

Also, the Sabbath would begin shortly at sundown. Jesus died around 3 p.m. thus there had to make haste in preparing his body for burial. This haste in burial of the Jews would to us appear as being disrespectful to the deceased. However, considering the climate and how quickly a body would decompose they had no other choice than to have a hasty burial.

Many times, they were buried in the clothes they were wearing at the time of their death. They would be stretched out on a bier with a cloth thrown over it, then carried to the place of burial. In Acts 5:6 in the case of Ananias we are told that ‘The young men…wrapped him round, and they carried him out and buried him.’

When death occurred in a family usually the oldest son or nearest of kin closed the eyes of the dead. The mouth was closed and the jaws bound up, John 11:43. Jacob was told by God that Joseph would put his hand upon his eyes and close them, Genesis 46:4.

After the body was washed, Acts 9:37, it was usually wrapped in cloth. The wealthy used linen with spices placed between the folds, John 19:40. A napkin was used to cover the head.

Cremation of a body was rare. In such cases as Saul and his sons, who were slain by the Philistines since their heads were decapitated noble men came and burned their mutilated bodies, but then they buried their bones, 1 Samuel 31:12-13. This explains the hasty burial of Nadab and Abihu who were carried outside the camp and buried.

The burial of Ananias and Sapphira were obviously done quickly. Ananias was not even aware of the death and burial of Sapphira when he arrived to speak with Peter.

Some countries practiced cremation such as the Greeks. Tacitus the historian expressly said in noting the contrast with Roman custom that it was a matter of piety with the Jews ‘to bury rather than to burn dead bodies.’

According to the Mosaic law burning was reserved, either for the living who had been found guilty of unnatural sins, Leviticus 20:4 / Leviticus 21:9, or for those who died under a curse, as in the case of Achan and his family, who after they had been stoned to death were, with all their belongings burned with fire, Joshua 7:25.

The Egyptians did practice embalming but it was far different than modern day embalming. It seems this was a long and difficult task that had to be performed by their physicians. According to Genesis 50:3 it took forty days to accomplish embalming. Both Jacob and Joseph were embalmed. Joseph gave command that his father be embalmed.

It seems the period for mourning with the Egyptians lasted for seventy days. When this period passed Jacob was taken and buried in the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had bought as a burial place for Sarah. Several of his family was buried there also. When the burial party arrived for Jacob’s burial it is said, ‘They lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.’ Joseph himself was embalmed at his death.

‘And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.’ Genesis 50:25

In many cases the body was wrapped in linen cloths (somewhat like our gauze) which was saturated with aromatic spices and other preparations to retard decomposition.

The linen cloths would seal the body so that air could not get to it thus slowing decomposition. Thus, the friends at Bethany prepared the body of Lazarus because he came forth from his tomb wrapped in his grave bands. Jesus asked them to remove the cloths, as he could not move about if he remained bound in them.

We are told that at the burial of Jesus, Nicodemus brought ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ to be use on his burial cloths. What surprises us is the amount of myrrh and aloes used, a hundred pounds. Then later early on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene and two other women brought spices for the same purpose, John 19:39-40.

Coffins were unknown in Israel, as they still are among the Jews in the East today. The bier on which the body was carried to the grave sometimes had a pole on each side, which enabled them to carry the body on the shoulders of those who bore the body to the tomb. The procession was made up largely of relatives and friends of the deceased but it was led by processional mourning women, who made the air resound with shrieks and lamentations.

Amos alludes to this custom in describing the mourning that shall be over the desolation of Israel.

‘Wailing shall be in all the broad ways, and they shall say in all the streets, Alas! Alas! And they shall call the husbandman to mourning and such as are skilful in lamentation to wailing.’

Jeremiah said,

‘Call for the mourning women, that they may come;……and let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters.’ Jeremiah 9:17

It seems it was customary for each family to have a family tomb: either in a natural cave, prepared with stone shelves to receive their bodies, or else they were hewn out of rock in the hillside with each tomb having many niches on which a body could be placed.

Many were buried in shallow graves in the ground with stones placed over the body to prevent wild animals from getting to the body. All who possessed any land, or who could afford it, had their family tombs, hewn out of the rock.

The entrance to the tomb was often closed with a large circular stone set up on its edge and rolled in a groove to cover the opening to the tomb, so as to close it securely. The stone was often secured by a strap, or by sealing it. In the case of Jesus, Pilate directed that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the body of Jesus was laid, should be carefully sealed and made as secure as the officials could make it.

Ordinary graves were marked by the heaping of crude stones, but hewn stones and sometimes costly pillars were set up as memorials of the dead. Jacob set up a pillar over Rachel’s grave, Genesis 35:20.

As we approach New Testament times burial was uniformly outside the cities and villages. There was public provision made for the burial of strangers, Matthew 27:7. The location was not always desirable.

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

2 Timothy 3:16

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