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Burial Practices: Ancient Jewish Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead

In ancient Israel, burial practices were a sacred tradition that reflected the significance of death in Judaism. Ancient Jewish burial practices sought to celebrate the life of the individual while commemorating the deceasedís death.

Death in the Jewish religion is central because it is considered to be a part of life and a part of Godís plan for humanity. In addition, the mourning that accompanies the death of a loved one is a reflection not of sorrow, but of the great value placed on the individualís life in Judaism.

Ancient Jewish practices concerning the dead instructed that the individual be buried and not cremated, a law still in observance today. This is because cremation is believed to be a punishment that is reserved for idols, criminals and enemies of the Jewish faith; for example, during the Exodus, Moses destroyed the golden calf in order to punish the Hebrews for their idolatry. Similarly, the early Christian Church also rejected cremation, because it was associated with Greek and Roman pagan beliefs.

On the other hand, burial represents a connection between the individual and God. The custom of burial is recorded in the Torah. The burial of Sarah is the first to be mentioned in the Torah. (Genesis 23:1-4). There is also reference to the burial of her husband Abraham (Genesis 25:8-10), as well as to the burial of David (1 Kings 2:10) and Moses (Deut. 34: 5, 6, 8). To not be buried was considered a curse, as well as a dishonor and tragedy. For instance, Godís curse on the Israelites was that they not be buried (Jeremiah 16:6).

Therefore, a great deal of importance was placed on burial in the Jewish religion in ancient times. Ordinary citizens, military personnel and even criminals had to be properly buried, according to religious law.

According to Jewish law, burial of the deceased had to occur within 24 hours of the individualís death (Deuteronomy 21:23), because of climate factors, in order to maintain ritual purity.

Soon after death, family members of the deceased would mourn and prepare the body for burial. The deceasedís body was washed and anointed with various oils and spices. The body was then wrapped in unique linen clothing that contained spices and placed on a stone shelf that was carved into the bedrock wall of a the tomb.

After the body was prepared, it was carried to the cemetery in a procession of lamentation and grief. The body was to be buried soon after death and the burial was required to take place outside of the village where the individual lived, according to a Jewish law still in practice today (Baba Bathra 2, 9). The grieving period lasted from three to seven days.

One of the most important tenets of ancient Jewish burial practices was that the individual be buried just outside of the village in which the individual had lived. A second essential tenet of ancient Jewish burial practices was that the individual be buried in the same tomb as his family.

Secondary Burial

Around two thousand years ago, during the time that Jesus Christ lived, the above traditions, referred to as primary burial rituals, shifted to include a secondary burial in ossuaries. This burial practice involved collecting the deceasedís bones after the flesh had been left to decompose and desiccate, and placing them inside an ossuary. The ossuary was then placed into a loculus Ė a type of satchel. Several theories have been put forward in order to explain this change in burial practices (see note, below, for details).

Historians believe that the most plausible theory put forth to explain the shift in Jewish burial practices is the Jewish belief that that sin was destroyed through the disintegration of the individualís flesh (Romans 7:24), thereby enabling resurrection of the soul. According to historians, this theory is further validated when placed into context: in 6 A.D., the Jewish people lost independence of ancient Israel with the successful conquest of the Romans in the area, which led to the creation of the Province of Judea. This conquest led to a sense of misfortune and guilt among the Jewish people of the area, which was reflected in the shift in burial practices.

This secondary burial ritual was common among the Jewish populations of Judea until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. After this date, secondary burials continued to be practiced until around the first half of the second century A.D. However, the custom of secondary burial lacked the centrality it had held in earlier times.

    Note: One such theory is that bones were placed in ossuaries in order to conserve space, a theory that has been refuted by some scholars due to the fact that coffins have a greater holding capacity than ossuaries.

    A second theory to explain this shift in burial practices was the Jewish belief that placing the bones in ossuaries would aid the resurrection of the individualís soul; this theory too has had its validity questioned due to the fact that while placing the deceasedís bones in ossuaries, the bones could become scattered or lost.

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