Ancient Burial Customs
Acts 8:2 "And devout men carried Stephen to his
burial, and made great lamentation over him."
And devout men carried Stephen to his "burial"
Burial Customs in the
Ancient Near East
Burial customs were very different in ancient times than
they are today. In the ancient eastern cultures, including
israel, burial was always something which was to be done in
haste, because of how rapidly the body decomposes. In
Israel, there was an immediate defilement with any contact
with a dead body. They would bury the dead usually within a
few hours, but rarely overnight.
The closest relative would close the eyes of the dead and
after the announcement the lamentation would begin with
wailing and bitter weeping. It was customary to have
professional mourners present. Even the poorest family
should hire at least one mourner.
The procession was not even quiet, with everyone beating
their breasts and tearing their clothes, along with the
mourners, and the singers, and the musical instruments,
usually the flute. The bier or flat board carrying the body
went first while the musicians would play at the rear of the
procession. This may shed light on the situation when Jesus
raised the young man from the dead:
Luke 7:11-16 11 Now it happened, the day after, that He went
into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with
Him, and a large crowd. 12 And when He came near the gate of
the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only
son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd
from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had
compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then He
came and touched the coffin (bier), and those who carried
him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you,
arise." 15 So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And
He presented him to his mother. 16 Then fear came upon all,
and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen
up among us"; and, "God has visited His people."
Since the burial was so urgent there was nothing elaborate.
Little ceremony and much haste. The dead person was usually
dressed in the most common clothes that they had been most
often seen wearing.
It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with
perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to
control the odors. The wealthier families could afford the
more costly and weightier perfumes. The hands and feet were
wrapped with linen cloths (grave-bands), and the face and
head were covered with a small cloth and bound. It was
loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the
body. The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm.
The Greeks and Cremation
With the Greeks it was customary to cremate the dead, but
not with the Jews. Tacitus (Hist. v. 5) 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."
There are instances of burning bodies in the OT but usually
it referred to that of an emergency or cleansing the camp
The body was brought to a grave in early times, where the
bier (flat board or stretcher) was removed and the body was
let down into the ground, and then covered with a heap of
stones to preserve it from wild animals. The grave was
usually a shallow hole dug in the earth. In later times it
was customary for each family to have a family tomb. The
tomb or "sepulcher" was usually a natural cave or was hewn
from the rock on a hillside with niches for the bodies to be
placed. The family was not to sell their ancestral tomb if
at all possible.
Some of the tombs were carved below ground level and had
steps leading down. The tomb was usually sealed with a large
circular stone, standing on its edge, and rolled into place
in a groove cut for it. There was usually a strap or a seal
which would indicate if the tomb had been disturbed.
If the family was wealthy the entrance stone was usually
carved elaborately with pictures, names, and usually words
of comfort. Greeks and Romans often carved pillars around
It was customary for visitors to come on the 3rd, 7th, and
40th days after the burial for mourning, with their heads
covered, faces black with dirt and ash, and in poor
clothing, sometimes torn and rent, and they would sing a
dirge and wail. In many cultures there was much violence
done to their own bodies to show their grief, though the
Bible forbade the mourners from cutting themselves. Some
shaved their heads, fasted, and meditated in total silence.
Whitewashed Tombs and
Touching Dead Bodies
It was ceremonially unclean for a Jew to touch a tomb. This
is why they were whitewashed with lime, so they could be
easily seen and not accidently touched. The Lord had
commanded them in the Law not to "touch" a dead body because
the blood was not alive, and the life of the flesh is in the
blood (Lev 17:11). Blood was set apart for sacrifice, and
they could have nothing else to do with it.
Mark 16:3-6 3 And they said among themselves, "Who will roll
away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?" 4 But when
they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled
away-- for it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they
saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the
right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them,
"Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was
crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where
they laid Him.
Bibliography on Ancient Customs
The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised
by Robins, 272 Pages, Pub. 2008
Return to Ancient Customs
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