Burial, Burial Customs


The Bible often talks about the ways that various cultures buried their dead. The different burial and funeral customs of societies reflect different views about death and the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians, for example, thought that everyday life simply continued after death, so they packed their tombs with practical, necessary items, such as food. The ancient Hebrews had a more spiritual idea of death, believing that the dead person’s spirit (without the body) went to live with the ghosts of generations gone before.


Among the Hebrews, where you were buried depended on who your family was. The Old Testament often describes the desire to be buried with one’s family, describing death as “going to [one’s] fathers” (Genesis 15:15; 1 Kings 13:22).
The cave of Machpelah at Hebron was one example of a family tomb. Abraham purchased the site from Ephron the Hittite at the time of Sarah’s death (Genesis 23). When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael laid his body in the same tomb (25:9). There, Jacob in turn buried his parents, Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Jacob’s wife Leah (49:31). After his death, Jacob’s body was buried with his father’s, as Jacob had requested (49:29; Genesis 50:13). Jacob’s son Joseph made his kinsmen promise that his remains would be preserved so they could be carried back to the homeland and buried with his family (50:25). Samuel is spoken of as being buried in his house at Ramah, evidently referring to a family graveyard plot (1 Samuel 25:1). Joab was buried in his own house in the wilderness (1 Kings 2:34). King Manasseh was buried in the garden of his palace (2 Kings 21:18), and Joshua in his own inheritance at Timnath-serah (Joshua 24:30). Kings were careful to keep their memory alive through special burial sites, often in the City of David (the part of Jerusalem on the southeastern ridge first occupied by that great king). King Josiah designated his burial place in advance, most likely an ancestral tomb (2 Kings 23:30).
When people were buried alone—such as Deborah near Bethel (Genesis 35:8) and Rachel on the road to Ephrath (35:1, 20)—it happened only because they died suddenly, far away from the family tomb.
Bodies were buried in tombs, that is, natural caves or sepulchers made out of rock, such as the one belonging to Joseph of Arimathea where the body of Jesus was laid (Matthew 27:59, 60). They were also buried in shallow graves covered with rock heaps, which marked the tomb and prevented the body from being destroyed by animals.
Some graves were marked by a monument erected in love (Genesis 35:20) or honor (2 Kings 23:17), but stones were also sometimes heaped on dishonorable burial places, as in the case of Achan (Joshua 7:26) and Absalom (2 Samuel 18:17). Tombs were often embellished, sometimes whitewashed, which had something to do with burial rules prescribed by the law of Moses. Jesus spoke of these “whitewashed sepulchers” in a rebuke of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27).


When God assures Jacob that “Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:4, RSV), he probably is making reference to the custom of a near relative closing the eyes of one who died. Close relatives might also literally embrace and kiss the body as it died. The body was washed and dressed in the deceased one’s clothing. Pins and other ornaments found in excavated tombs are evidence that the dead were buried fully clothed. Soldiers were buried in full uniform, with shields covering or cradling the armored bodies, their swords under their heads (Ezekiel 32:27).
Although the customs and procedures probably didn’t change much from Old Testament to New Testament times, some added details are given in the New Testament. For example, it is noted that the corpse was washed (Acts 9:37). The body was then anointed and wrapped in linen cloths with spices enclosed (Mark 16:1; John 19:40). Finally, the limbs were tightly bound and the head covered with a separate piece of cloth (John 11:44).
After preparation of the body, it was carried on a bier (a simple frame with carrying poles) without being placed in a coffin. The body was laid either in a prepared hole in the wall of a rockhewn chamber or directly in a shallow grave dug in the ground. The bier and casket did not enter the pit with the corpse. The spices were used as a perfume and to keep the body from decaying too quickly (Mark 16:1).
As we know from the Gospel record of Jesus’ burial, some cave tombs had a seal at the doorway, either a hinged wooden door or a flat stone shaped so it could be rolled into place. Such a stone seal could be reopened only with extreme effort (Mark 15:46; 16:3-4). By New Testament times, the Jews sometimes saved money on burials by placing the dry bones of long-dead relatives in boxes. The Romans used chests to hold a body’s ashes after it was cremated.
Embalming was not often done in Israel. When Jacob and Joseph were embalmed in Egypt, this was the exception rather than the rule. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptians began embalming procedures by removing the brain through the nostrils piece by piece, using a long curved hook. When this had been done, the brain cavity was rinsed out with a mixture of resins and spices. The corpse was cleaned and the body organs were placed in four jars. The body was soaked in a solution for a period of from 40 to 80 days, depending on the cost of the burial. At the time of interment, the corpse was wrapped in strips of fine linen cloth from head to foot and put in a coffin. The jars were placed in the tomb along with the body, symbolizing the survival of the personality after death (the ancient Egyptians thought that interior organs secreted one’s personality).
Cremation of the bodies of Saul and his sons (1 Samuel 31:12-13) was also an exception to normal practice. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Jewish piety required the burying rather than burning of dead bodies. Under Mosaic law such burning was only done as a punishment or judgment (Leviticus 21:9; Joshua 7:25).
Under Mosaic law, a person could be ceremonially defiled by touching a corpse or by formally mourning someone’s death. A priest in Israel was not allowed to do any mourning, and “must never defile himself by going near a dead person, even if it is his father or mother. He must not desecrate the sanctuary of his God by leaving it to attend his parents’ funeral, because he has been made holy by the anointing oil of his God” (Leviticus 21:10-12).

Fast Facts

A better question would be, “Who isn’t buried?” Only those who were being punished for some horrible crime would be left unburied. In Isaiah 14:18-20, the prophet Isaiah says that the king of evil Babylon will not receive a proper burial.
Burial in ancient times was not all that different from burial today. The body of someone who had died was placed in the ground or in a cave.
Dead bodies were buried partly out of respect and partly as a means of sanitation.
By Jewish law, cemetaries had to be outside the city walls. Approaching a dead body or the place where a body was buried would render one unclean.

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