Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ber'-i-al (qebhurah; compare New Testament to entaphidsai):
I. IMMEDIATE BURIAL CONSIDERED URGENT
1. Reasons for This
2. The Burial of Jesus
3. The Usual Time
4. Duties of Next of Kin
II. PREPARATIONS FOR BURIAL
1. Often Informal and Hasty
2. Usually with More Ceremony
3. Contrasts between Jewish Customs and Other Peoples'
III. ON THE WAY TO THE GRAVE
1. Coffins Unknown
2. Professional Mourners
IV. AT THE GRAVE
1. Graves Dug in the Earth
2. Family Tombs. Later Customs
3. Sealed Stones
4. Stated Times of Mourning
5. Excessive Mourning
V. FAILURE TO RECEIVE BURIAL A CALAMITY OR JUDGMENT
VI. PLACES OF BURIAL: HOW MARKED
It is well to recall at the outset that there are points of likeness and of marked contrast between oriental and occidental burial customs in general, as well as between the burial customs of ancient Israel and those of other ancient peoples. These will be brought out, or suggested later in this article.
I. Immediate Burial Considered Urgent.
1. Reasons for This:
The burial of the dead in the East in general was and is often effected in such a way as to suggest to the westerner indecent haste. Dr. Post says that burial among the people of Syria today seldom takes place later than ten hours after death, often earlier; but, he adds, "the rapidity of decomposition, the excessive violence of grief, the reluctance of Orientals to allow the dead to remain long in the houses of the living, explain what seems to us the indecency of haste." This still requires the survivors, as in the case of Abraham on the death of Sarah, to bury their dead out of their sight (Gen 23:1-4); and it in part explains the quickness with which the bodies of Nadab and Abihu were Carried out of the camp (Lev 10:4), and those of Ananias and Sapphira were hastened off to burial (Acts 5:1-11). Then, of course, the defilement to which contact with a dead body gave occasion, and the judgment that might come upon a house for harboring the body of one dying under a Divine judgment, further explain such urgency and haste.
2. The Burial of Jesus:
It was in strict accordance with such customs and the provision of the Mosaic law (Dt 21:23; compare Gal 3:13), as well as in compliance with the impulses of true humanity, that Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus for burial on the very day of the crucifixion (Mt 27:39 ff).
3. The Usual Time:
The dead are often in their graves, according to present custom, within two or three hours after death. Among oriental Jews burial takes place, if possible, within twenty-four hours after death, and frequently on the day of death. Likewise Mohammedans bury their dead on the day of death, if death takes place in the morning; but if in the afternoon or at night, not until the following day.
4. Duties of Next of Kin:
As soon as the breath is gone the oldest son, or failing him, the nearest of kin present, closes the eyes of the dead (compare Gen 46:4, "and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes"). The mouth, too, is closed and the jaws are bound up (compare Jn 11:44, "and his face was bound about with a napkin"). The death is announced, as it was of old, by a tumult of lamentation preceded by a shrill cry, and the weeping and wailing of professional mourners (compare Mk 5:38 ff).
II. Preparations for Burial.
1. Often Informal and Hasty:
These are often informal and hasty. Under the tyranny of such customs as those noted, it is often impossible to make them elaborate. Canon Tristram says: "As interments take place at latest on the evening of the day of death, and frequently at night, there can be no elaborate preparations. The corpse, dressed in such clothes as were worn in life, is stretched on a bier with a cloth thrown over it, until carried forth for burial" (Eastern Customs, 94). In Acts 5:6 we read of Ananias, "The young men .... wrapped him round, and they carried him out and buried him." "What they did," as Dr. Nicol says, "was likely this: they unfastened his girdle, and then taking the loose under-garment and the wide cloak which was worn above it, used them as a winding-sheet to cover the corpse from head to foot." In other words, there was little ceremony and much haste.
2. Usually with More Ceremony:
Usually, however, there was more ceremony and more time taken. Missionaries and natives of Syria tell us that it is still customary to wash the body (compare Acts 9:37), anoint it with aromatic ointments (compare Jn 12:7; 19:39; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1), swathe hands and feet in grave-bands, usually of linen (Jn 11:44a), and cover the face or bind it about with a napkin or handkerchief (Jn 11:44b). It is still common to place in the wrappings of the body aromatic spices and other preparations to retard decomposition. Thus the friends at Bethany prepared the body of Lazarus, and he came forth wrapped in grave-bands and with a napkin bound about his face. And, we are further told that after the burial of Jesus, Nicodemus brought "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds," and that they "took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury," and that Mary Magdalene and two other women brought spices for the same purpose (Jn 19:39,40; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1). That this was a very old custom is witnessed by such passages as 2 Ch 16:14, where it is said that Asa, the king, was laid "in the bed which was filled with sweet odors and divers kinds of spices prepared by the perfumers' art" (compare Jn 12:3,7; Sirach 38:16). From Acts 5:6; 8:2 it appears that there was in later times a confraternity of young men whose business it was to attend to these proprieties and preparations on behalf of the dead; but it was probably only in exceptional cases that they were called upon to act. Certainly such ministries ordinarily devolved, as they do now, upon loving relatives and friends, and mostly women, among the Jews as well as among the Greeks. The practice among the Greeks, both by similarity and contrast, affords an interesting illustration. The following instance is aptly cited in D B (art. "Burial"): Electra believing Orestes to be dead and his ashes placed in the sepulchral urn (Soph. Electra 1136-52), addresses him thus: "Woe is me! These loving hands have not washed or decked thy corpse, nor taken, as was meet, their sad burden from the flaming pyre. At the hands of strangers, hapless one, thou hast had those rites, and so art come to us, a little dust in a narrow urn."
3. Contrasts between Jewish Customs and Other Peoples':
This brings us to note two marked contrasts between customs in Israel and among other peoples.
With the Greeks it was customary to cremate the dead (see CREMATION); but there was nothing in Jewish practice exactly corresponding to this. Tacitus (Hist. v.5) expressly says, 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." The burning of the bodies of Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh-Gilead (1 Sam 31:11-13) seems to have been rather a case of emergency, than of conformity to any such custom, as the charred bones were buried by the same men under the tamarisk at Jabesh, and later, by David's order, removed and laid to rest in the sepulcher of Kish (2 Sam 21:12-14). According to the Mosaic law burning was reserved, either for the living who had been found guilty of unnatural sins (Lev 20:4; 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 (Josh 7:25).
As the burning practiced by the Greeks found no place in Jewish law and custom, so embalming, as practiced by the Egyptians, was unknown in Israel, the cases of Jacob and Joseph being clearly special, and in conformity to Egyptian custom under justifying circumstances. When Jacob died it was Joseph, the Egyptian official, who "commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father" (Gen 50:2), and it was conventionally the fit thing that when Joseph himself died his body was embalmed and "put in a coffin (sarcophagus) in Egypt" (Gen 50:26).
III. On the Way to the Grave:
When the preparations were made and the time came, the corpse was carried to the grave on a bier, or litter (miTTah).
1. Coffins Unknown:
Coffins were unknown in ancient Israel, as they are among the Jews of the East to this day. The only one mentioned in the Bible is the sarcophagus in which the embalmed body of Joseph was preserved, unless Asa's bed (2 Ch 16:14) be another, as some think. Moslems, like eastern Jews, never use coffins. The bier sometimes has a pole at each corner by means of which it is carried on the shoulders to the tomb.
2. Professional Mourners:
The procession of mourners is made up largely, of course, of relatives and friends of the deceased, but is led by professional mourning women, who make the air resound with their shrieks and lamentations (compare Eccl 12:5; Jer 9:17; Am 5:16). See MOURNING. Am 5:16 alludes to this custom in describing the mourning that shall be over the desolations 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 skillful in lamentation to wailing." Jer (9:17,18) breaks out: "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." Dr. Fred. Bliss tells of a mourning delegation at the mahal, or mourning house, of a great man. "No matter how gaily they may be chatting they approach, when they reach the house they rush forward, handkerchiefs to face, sobbing, weeping, with utmost demonstrations of grief, going through them time after time as occasion requires." Amelia B. Edwards gives a vivid account of her first experience with such mourning: "It rose like the far-off wavering sound of many owls. It shrilled, swelled, wavered, dropped, and then died away, like the moaning of the wind at sea. We never heard anything so wild and plaintive." Among some Jews of today, it is said, the funeral procession moves swiftly, because there are supposed to be innumerable evil spirits (shedhim) hovering about, desirous to attack the soul, which is thought to be in the body until interment takes place and the corpse is actually covered (see DB, article "Burial").
IV. At the Grave.
When the grave, or place of entombment, is reached ceremonies more or less characteristic and peculiar to the Orient take place.
1. Graves Dug in the Earth:
When the body is let down into the ground, the bier, of course, is set aside, and at first a heap of stones only is piled over the shallow grave--to preserve the dead from the dreaded depredations of hyenas, jackals or thieves. Beyond question graves among ancient Jews were often simply dug in the earth, as they are with us, and as they are with Jews at Jerusalem and elsewhere in the East today.
2. Family Tombs. Later Customs:
But originally, it would seem to have been customary for each family to have a family tomb: either a natural cave, prepared with stone shelves to receive the bodies, or else hewn out of rock in the hillside, each tomb, or sepulcher, having many niches or loculi, in each one of which a body could be placed (see Gen 25:10; 49:31; 50:13; 35:19; Josh 24:32). As Dr. Nicol says, "All among the Israelites who possessed any land, or who could afford it, had their family tombs, hewn out of the rock, each sepulchre containing many niches. Many generations of a family could thus be placed in the ancestral tomb." Countless numbers of such tombs are to be found all over Israel, but Machpelah, of course, is the chief example (Gen 23). Compare the cases of Joshua buried in his inheritance at Timnath-serah (Josh 24:30), Samuel in his house at Ramah (1 Sam 25:1), Joab in his house in the wilderness (1 Ki 2:34), Manasseh in the garden of his house (2 Ki 21:18), Josiah in the same tomb, it would seem, as his fath er and grandfather (2 Ki 23:30), and Asa, singled out for special mention (2 Ch 16:14). According to custom, too, the Jew was not to sell his burying-place, if it was possible for him to hold it. Today in the Orient it
is quite different--burying-places of Moslem, Jewish and Christian peoples, while distinct from each other, are community rather than family burying-places.
3. Sealed Stones:
When the tomb was a cave, or was dug out from some rock, the entrance was often closed with a large circular stone set up on its edge or rim and rolled in its groove to the front of the mouth of the tomb, so as to close it securely. This stone was then often further secured by a strap, or by sealing. In such case it could easily be seen or known if the tomb had been disturbed. Pilate, it will be recalled, 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. "So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them" (Mt 27:66).
4. Stated Times of Mourning:
In Syria, as elsewhere in the East, it is customary to have stated times after the burial for mourning at the tomb--for example on the third, seventh, and fortieth days, and again on the anniversary of the burial. The relatives or friends then go to the tomb without ornaments, often with hair disheveled; sometimes with head covered and faces blackened with soot, or ashes, or earth, in their oldest and poorest clothing, which is sometimes violently rent, and, sitting or moving in a circle around or near to the tomb, they break out in spells into weird, dirge-like singing or wailing.
5. Excessive Mourning:
The violence of grief at times leads to lacerations of the body and the shedding of blood. Morier (Second Journey through Persia), describing a celebration which takes place annually to commemorate the death of the grandson of Mohammed, says: "I have seen the most violent of them, as they vociferated Ya Hosein! walk the streets with their bodies streaming with blood by the voluntary cuts they had given themselves". Such cutting of the flesh in mourning for the dead was specifically forbidden by the Mosaic law (Lev 19:28; 21:5; Dt 14:1). But excessive mourning for the dead is often alluded to in Scripture (see 2 Sam 1:11,12; Ps 6:6; 119:136; Lam 1:16; 3:48; Jer 9:1).
The custom of dirge-songs seems to be alluded to (Mt 9:23; Mk 5:38) in the narrative of the healing of the ruler's daughter: "Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute-players, and the crowd making a tumult." A characteristic oriental funeral procession and burial are vividly pictured in the narrative of the burial of Jacob (Gen 50:6-13).
V. Failure to Receive Burial Counted a Calamity or a Judgment.
Any lack of proper burial is still regarded in the East, as it was in ancient times, as a great indignity or a judgment from God. It is esteemed the greatest calamity that can befall a person. It gives men still untold distress to think they shall not receive suitable burial, according to the customs of their respective race, or family, or religion--a fact or sentiment that is often alluded or appealed to by way of illustration in the Scriptures. For a corpse to remain unburied and become food for beasts of prey was the climax of indignity or judgment (2 Sam 21:10,11; 1 Ki 13:22; 14:11; 16:4; 21:24; 2 Ki 9:37; Jer 7:33; 8:1; Ezek 29:5; Ps 79:3; Rev 11:9), and uncovered blood cried for vengeance (Ezek 24:6 f; 39:11-16), the idea being the same as among other oriental peoples, that the unburied dead would not only inflict trouble upon his family, but bring defilement also and a curse upon the whole land. It was, therefore, an obligation resting upon all to bury even the dead found by the way (Tobit 1:18; 2:8). Even malefactors were to be allowed burial (Dt 21:22,23), and the exceptional denial of it to the sons of Rizpah gave occasion for the touching story of her self-denying care of the dead found in 2 Sam 21:10,11.
VI. Places of Burial: How Marked.
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 (Ezek 39:15; 2 Ki 23:17 the Revised Version (British and American), "What monument is that which I see?" the reference being to a sepulchral pillar). Jacob set up a pillar over Rachel's grave (Gen 35:20), and her tomb is marked by a monument to this day. Absalom's grave in the wood of Ephraim had a heap of stones raised over it (2 Sam 18:17), but in this case, as in the case of Achan, it was not for honor but for dishonor. In New Testament times the place of burial was uniformly outside the cities and villages (see Lk 7:12; Jn 11:30). There was public provision made for the burial of strangers (Mt 27:7), as in the closing days of the monarchy there was a public burying-ground at Jerusalem (Jer 26:23), probably where it is to this day between the city wall and the Kidron Valley. Thousands of Jewish graves on the sloping sides of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the Jews have come from all lands to be buried, bear witness today to the belief that associates the coming of Messiah with a blessed resurrection. Many Jews hold that Messiah, when He comes, will descend upon the Mount of Olives, and will pass through these resting-places of the dead as He enters the Holy City in glory.
HDB, article "Burial"; Keil, Biblical Arch., II, 199 f; Nowack, Heb Arch., I, 187 ff; "Burial" and "Tombs" in Kitto, Cycl.; Thomson, LB (see "Funerals" in Index); Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands; Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs.
George B. Eager
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'BURIAL'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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