The ancient Jewish people of the Bible did not believe that death meant total annihilation, or that we vanish completely at the moment of death.
Death to them meant the loss of vitality and strength, but so long as the body or at least the bones remained, the soul or nefesh continued to exist. In its greatly weakened state, the nefesh sheltered in Sheol, the subterranean abode of the dead (Genesis 44:29; Job 10:21 ff; Isaiah 14:9 ff.), where it led a shadowy, meaningless existence.
However, as the soul was presumed to feel what was done to its dead body, a corpse must be given honourable burial. It must not be burned, and to leave it as a prey for wild animals would bring curses to the living.
The burial of Sarah, a reconstruction
In ancient Israel and other ancient civilizations, tombs and catacombs were homes for the dead. They held the body until it decomposed, then the bones were stored in a central pit or in an ossuary (bone box). Tombs were cut into the rock, usually with a small central room and recesses for bodies.
The various prohibitions were not altogether successful and many forbidden customs were followed (see Jeremiah 16:6; 41:5; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16).
Certain mourning customs were, of course, permitted.
The prohibitions on bodily mutilations were not always observed. The men who came from Shechem and Shiloh and Samaria mourning Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Jeremiah 41 :5) had 'their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed'. Many other forbidden customs were followed (see Jeremiah 16:6; 41:5; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16).
Mourners showed their distress by refusing food. On the day of a burial none of the deceased's relatives would eat. Nor at the end of day would they prepare food for themselves, but would be served by others who would also offer the
'cup of consolation'. After the death of Abner, all the people came to bring bread to the mourning David, but he would not eat until nightfall (II
In general the period of mourning after a death was seven days and during this period the mourners did not wash or anoint themselves (II Samuel 14:2). After the bones of Saul and Jonathan had been buried the people of Jabesh-Gilead fasted seven days (I Samuel 31:13). The period could, however, be extended as after the death of Aaron (Numbers 20:28-29) and Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8) or shortened (Ecclesiastes 38:17).
A man who desired to take a captive woman for his wife must allow her to mourn for her father and mother for a month in his house (Deuteronomy 21:11-13). It was considered unseemly to mourn for too long a period, partly to avoid any tendencies towards making a cult of the dead.
19th century photograph of the tomb said to have belonged to Lazarus
Tomb of Lazarus today. If it really was Lazarus' tomb,
the Tomb of Lazarus
James Tissot had obviously visited this tomb when he painted the
Tomb of Zechariah, Kidron Valley
The so-called . In fact the inscriptions prove that they were all the tombs of members of the aristocratic priestly family, the Bnei-Hezir, and they all belong to the 1st century BC.
Plan of the Tomb of Zechariah. The subterranean part of the tomb was arranged according to the plan shown above, the staircase leading to the monolith and tombs of B'nei Hezir (2, 3, 4, 6) which originally consisted of a central room and surrounding funeral chambers equipped with horseshoe shaped benches and added niches. The mediaeval monks who attributed the tomb to St. James reconstructed the central chamber and the niches to serve as monastic cells and a church. 5 is a Byzantine cistern and 2 and 8 the ruins of the sanctuary of St. James. 9 and 10 are monastic cells; I I an antique tomb and 12 the nefesh or monolithic monument. The vestiges of the mediaeval hermitage of St. James can be seen at the foot of the monolith.
The Necropolis of Beth-Shearim
Necropolis of Beth-Shearim, near Haifa: entrance to a burial cave
Design of the facade of one of the monumental tombs near Jerusalem
Entrance to the Tomb of the Sanhedrin: the origin of the name is unknown
Monumental tombs in which sarcophagi were found near Jerusalem, called Tombs of the Kings, have been identified with the tombs of the royal family of Adiabene from Mesopotamia after their conversion in the 1st century AD.
Animals mourn the death of someone they love, but only humans bury their dead. It's as if we care for the people we love even after they die.
Tombs began as circular huts in which the body was placed, along with tools and personal goods. As time passed, tombs came to be built of more durable materials, like brick and stone. They were domed or rectangular, copying the shape of the houses.
You can't take it with you? You could if you were a king or queen. They were provided not only with sumptuous funerary goods, but also with servants to look after them in the afterlife. The tomb of Queen Shub-Ad of Ur (where Abraham originated), contained the bodies of more than sixty of the queen's attendants.
In early Christian communities, the tomb was seen as an earthly symbol of the heavenly home. Roman catacombs are decorated with scenes of the deceased, now in Paradise.
According to the Bible, it was absolutely essential that a person be given a proper burial. To deprive a person of this was the worst punishment. If the prophets wished to curse a king, they predicted that their bodies would be left out in the wilderness for wild animals to eat - 'anyone who dies in the open country, the birds of the air shall eat; for the Lord has spoken' (1 Kings 14:11).
In Israel, the proper way to be buried was in a family sepulchre, joining your ancestors in death. This applied to the highest and lowest in the land.
People felt they had an obligation to do this: when someone died far from home (as Jacob did, and Jesus) his relatives and friends saw it as their duty to bring the body home to the family sepulchre.
But according to the Law of Moses, a dead body or even a human bone were ritually unclean. If you touched it, you had to undergo ritual purification for seven days.
People were never buried inside the walls of the village or city. This was considered a pagan practice (see Jericho Skull). The only person exempted from this law was the King, who was buried in a royal sepulchre inside the walls of Jerusalem.
If a city wanted to expand its walls and build on land that had tombs on it, all the bones had to be exhumed and reburied outside the new city walls.
Tomb with rock benches: the Tomb of Kings, Jerusalem
The most common way to be buried was in a communal family tomb, in a cave hewn out of the rock. There were rock benches around the walls of each compartment, on which the body was placed.
When these spaces had all been used, and another body had to be buried, the bones on the benches were collected together and placed in the center of the cave - either on the floor or in a shallow pit dug out for this purpose.
Removing the bones in this way made it possible for one family to use the same tomb for many generations.
The Canaanites placed food vessels (and presumably food), personal objects such as jewelry, inscribed seals and weapons with the dead body. This practice continued even as late as the 2nd or 1st century BC.
A circa 1900 photograph of a
tomb which is said to have contained the body of the beautiful queen Mariamme, who was strangled by her
husband King Herod the Great.
Up until the century before the birth of Jesus, the body of the dead person was placed on a stone bench in the sepulchre.
After this period, however, a new type of tomb was used. This was still carved into the rock, but now the benches were replaced by cavities cut into the side of the wall, one above the other - much the same as the catacombs.
Each of these cavities contained one body, which could be sealed in by a well-fitting slab of stone. The body would then be left undisturbed. This meant that people placing a new dead body in the tomb were spared the unpleasant sight of decomposing bodies from past burials.
When the body had decomposed, the stone slab was removed and the bones collected. They were then placed in small individual stone boxes called ossuaries, which often had the name of the dead person carved on the side.
ossuary was a box in which the bones of the dead person were stored.
The entrance to this type of tomb was sealed with a large, heavy stone which had to be rolled into position. The entrance itself might be decorated with carvings and look out onto a small courtyard - according to the wealth of the family.
It was in this type of tomb that Jesus of Nazareth was buried on the night after his death on the cross.
When Jewish people heard that someone they loved had died, they tore the front part of their inner clothing. The tear was several inches long, a symbol of grief: it represented the tearing pain in their hearts.
was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. The body was
washed, and hair and nails were cut. Then it was gently wiped with a
mixture of spices and wrapped in linen strips of various sizes and
widths. While this was happening, prayers from the Scriptures were
Tombs were visited and watched for three days by family members and friends. On the third day after death, the body was examined. This was to make sure that the person was really dead, for accidental burial of someone still alive could happen.
At this stage the body would be treated by the women of the family with oils and perfumes. The women's visits to the tombs of Jesus and Lazarus are connected with this ritual.
'The Dead Christ', by Andrea Mantegna
After visiting the tomb on the third day the body was left untouched for a year, by which time it had decomposed. The bones were then collected and stored in an ossuary, a ‘bone box’, with the large bones at the bottom and the smaller bones and skull placed on top.
After the funeral, the family of the dead person stayed at home for seven days. They sat on the floor or on a low bench, barefoot. They did not wash themselves or their clothes, or do any work. They did not cook, but were given food by relatives. They were visited by a continual stream of friends and relatives, who sat with them and comforted them. For a thirty-day period after the death, the family members took no part in any entertainment, but lived a quiet, reflective life.
After the death of a father or a mother, the mourning period was one year. This period was an opportunity to pay respect to the two people who had given you life.
Preparing the Corpse
In this tomb
at Megiddo, chambers lead off a vertical entrance shaft that can be sealed
Sometimes, in more elaborate constructions, the shaft had a flight of steps and the chambers were rectangular in shape. In general, burial grounds were outside a village or town.
The tombs of the Early Bronze Age (4th millenium BC) in Palestine were used successively for a number of burials and the custom was continued in the Middle Bronze. After each burial, the shaft would be filled, to be re-excavated the next time the tomb was needed. When a new burial was to be made, the bodies and accompanying offerings from earlier burials would be pushed to the back and sides of the tomb chamber.
The final burial remained intact against a background of jumble from earlier interments, as shown in this picture (below) from a Jericho tomb (circa 1600-1700 BC). Many of the tombs probably belonged to a family group and contained twenty or so bodies, which would cover a few generations.
Group of bones in a Jericho tomb, circa 1600-1700BC
The offerings apparently represented what was considered the necessary provision for the after-life and may equally well have been the equipment used by the dead in this life. Besides food and drink, aromatic oils and perfumes would also be placed in the tomb in clay pots and jars.
The Israelites continued the custom, although in a different form. Whereas the Canaanites used to supply their dead with food and drink, furniture and implements for use in the netherworld and on their way there, later Israelite graves rarely contain more than personal belongings and pottery containers.
No authentic tomb from the earliest Israelite times has ever been identified. Archaeologists interpret this as evidence that the majority of burial places of the common people must have been extremely modest — simple shallow graves which would easily be obliterated by time and tilling or erosion.
Ordinary people were probably buried in common burial pits, a 'tomb of the sons of the people' and the practice continued until the monarchy (II Kings 23:6; Jeremiah 26:23). More important burials were in caves or shelters under rocks. A few tombs of this kind have been found on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
According to Genesis, Sarah (23:19), Abraham, (25:9), Isaac, Rebecca and Leah (49:31) and Jacob (50:13) were all buried in the 'Cave of Machpelah to the east of Mamre which Abraham bought ... as a burying place'.
In general, people who died away from home were buried where they died. Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, was buried near Bethel
'under an oak' known after that as 'Alon bacuth' (the oak of weeping;
Genesis 35:8) and
Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrath
(Bethlehem). Jacob erected a pillar at Rachel's tomb.
Except for the kings, there is no evidence that the dead were buried inside the towns. Tombs would be scattered over surrounding slopes, or grouped in places where the soil was suitable.
The normal tomb of the period of the monarchy was either a natural cave, or else a burial chamber cut out of the soft rock, made with an entrance opening, sometimes with a few steps. The bodies were laid on ledges hewn out of the rock. When the chamber was filled, the bones were removed to niches in the walls of the chamber, so as to make room for new burials. The tombs might be used by a family or a clan for a considerable time.
Group of burial caves found in the excavation of Samaria (see information below)
Outside the chamber a kind of bench, 0.44 metres high, was cut in the rock. In the floor of the cave were six holes, some with a double-rimmed mouth to carry a cover stone; two of them were connected by a narrow and shallow channel. The holes
opened into bottle-shaped rock-cut pits, varying in depth from 2.20 to 4.50 m. and in lower diameter from 1.80 to 2.90 m. The pits
were full of pottery, much of which had apparently been broken intentionally; there were also objects in bronze, iron, stone and bone, as well as some animal bones. The pits suggest the practice of a cult of the dead, in spite of the rigorous opposition to it by the prophets.
The entrance to a grave was carefully closed against robbers or beasts of prey. Sometimes sepulchres of great splendour were prepared. Isaiah denounced a high official 'Shebna, who is over the house' for the magnificence of the tomb he had carved for himself (Isaiah 22:15-16). When a funerary inscription from the period of the first Temple was discovered in the village of Siloam with an indecipherable name, it was very tempting to link it with the man Isaiah had in mind. The inscription runs
It is interesting to compare this with a Phoenician funerary inscription (see below) in Cyprus (900-850 BC) reading: 'He who defiles this sarcophagus will perish by ... the hand of Baal .... by the hand of the assembly of God . . . .'
funerary inscription reads "He who defiles this sarcophagus will perish by ... the hand of Baal .... by the hand of the assembly of God."
Poor People's Burials
Part of a
Roman-era lead sarcophagus, which appears to show a menorah
The ossuaries might be made of wood, clay or lead. Stone ones were made in the form of houses with an arched roof, often decorated with rosettes of
six, nine, twelve or more petals, or other plant and architectural motifs. Others were left undecorated. Many of them were inscribed in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek with the names of the dead whose bones they contained. Over a thousand of these ossuaries have been found in Jerusalem alone, all of them dating between the 1st
century BC and the 2nd century AD.
Tombs continued to be closed against marauding men or beasts. Sometimes this was done by a heavy stone door which could be locked. Other tombs were closed by means of a circular stone, as in this Herodian tomb (below) which could be rolled into position along a groove, propelled by a simple lever and kept in place by a small stone, called a "dofek".
Tomb cut into
the rock, with circular stone rolled away from the entrance.
In general, until the late Hellenistic period, tombs were not distinguished by monuments. Rabbinic tradition (confirmed in Matthew 23:27-29) records that the doors were coated with chalk or whitewash as a warning to the passer-by to avoid the ritual defilement caused by inadvertent contact.
customs of Israel's Neighbours
Egyptian tomb relief showing mourning practices (top panel) and the funeral procession (below)
The sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos in Phoenicia, who lived during the 10th century BC, carried a carving of four bare-breasted women, two with their hands over their heads and two beating their sides. In front of the king stand men with their right arms bared. This was a custom common to both Egypt and Palestine. Rabbinical literature refers to the baring of the arm and shoulder in mourning. Pre-Islamic Arab women bared their breasts and beat on them, tore their hair and their flesh and mourned for the dead for a week. The men would shave their heads and their faces, leaving the hair and beards on the tomb and offering sacrifices over them to the dead.
Tombs in Bible Times - Archaeology of The Bible: Burying the Dead, Burial Customs in Old and New Testament: Bible Study Resource