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Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Ancient Burial Practices

In the Bible

Decent burial was regarded to be of great importance in ancient Israel, as in the rest of the ancient Near East. Not only the Egyptians, whose extravagant provision for the dead is well known, but also the peoples of Mesopotamia dreaded above all else the thought of lying unburied. One of the most frequently employed curses found in Mesopotamian texts is: "May the earth not receive your corpses," or the equivalent. In the same way one can measure the importance that Israelites attached to burial by the frequency with which the Bible refers to the fear of being left unburied. Thus, one of the curses for breach of the covenant is: "Thy carcasses shall be food unto all fowls of the air, and unto the beasts of the earth" (Deut. 28:26). Again and again the prophets use this threat, especially Jeremiah. He says, in judgment on King Jehoiakim, "He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem" (22:19).

There is also abundant positive evidence for the importance of burial. Abraham's purchase of the cave at Machpelah as a family tomb (Gen. 23) and the subsequent measures taken by later patriarchs to ensure that they would be buried there (Gen. 49:29–33; 50:25–26) occupy a prominent place in the patriarchal narratives. Biblical biographies ordinarily end with the statement that a man died, and an account of his burial (e.g., Josh. 24:30), especially if this was in some way unusual (e.g., that of Uzziah, the leprous king, II Chron. 26:23); this is not only a literary convention, but reflects the value assigned to proper interment. To give a decent burial to a stranger ranks with giving bread to the hungry and garments to the naked (Tob. 1:17–18). Tombs of the Israelite period in modern-day Israel show that considerable, though not lavish, care was given by those who could afford it, to the hewing out of tombs and the provision of grave goods.

Nevertheless, this assessment of the importance of decent burial must be qualified. Archaeology reveals no distinctively Israelite burial practices during almost the whole of the biblical period. The Israelites continued to use modes of burial employed in modern-day Israel long before the conquest. It follows that it is risky to draw firm conclusions about Israelite religious beliefs on the basis of specific burial practices, e.g., the provision of grave goods or lack of them, communal or individual burial, and so on, since any or all of these may have been dictated by immemorial custom rather than by consciously held conviction. The law says relatively little about burial, and where it treats the subject, the concern is to avoid defilement by the dead (Num. 19:16; Deut. 21:22–23). The dead do not praise God, they are forgotten and cut off from His hand (Ps. 88:6, 10–12), and in consequence mourning and the burial of the dead are at most peripheral matters in Israelite religion.

The one thing expressed most clearly by Israelite burial practices is the common human desire to maintain some contact with the community even after death, through burial in one's native land at least, and if possible with one's ancestors. "Bury me with my fathers," Jacob's request (Gen. 49:29), was the wish of every ancient Israelite. Thus, the aged Barzillai did not wish to go with David, "that I may die in mine own city, [and be buried] by the grave of my father and of my mother" (II Sam. 19:38); and Jerusalem was beloved to Nehemiah, in exile, as "the city of my fathers' sepulchers" (Neh. 2:5). In harmony with this desire, the tomb most typical of the Israelite period is a natural cave or a chamber cut into soft rock, near the city. Bodies would be laid on rock shelves provided on three sides of the chamber, or on the floor, and as generations of the same family used the tomb, skeletons and grave goods might be heaped up along the sides or put into a side chamber to make room for new burials. This practice of family burial, though not universal if only because not all could afford it (see references to the graves of the common people in II Kings 23:6; Jer. 26:23), was common enough to give rise to the Hebrew expressions "to sleep with one's fathers" (e.g., I Kings 11:23) and "to be gathered to one's kin" (Gen. 25:8; et al.) as synonyms for "to die."

There is no explicit biblical evidence as to how soon after death burial took place (Deut. 21:23 refers to hanged criminals only), but it is likely that it was ordinarily within a day after death. This was dictated by the climate and by the fact that the Israelites did not embalm the dead (Jacob and Joseph were embalmed following Egyptian custom, Gen. 50:2, 26). Cremation was not practiced by the ancient Israelites. There is no archaeological evidence that this was their practice, and the references to "burnings" at the funeral of certain kings (Jer. 34:5; II Chron. 16:14; 21:19) presumably refer to the burning of incense or some of the king's possessions, not the body. On the other hand, it may be going too far to say, as is often done, that cremation was regarded as an outrage. That the men of Jabesh-Gilead burned the mutilated bodies of Saul and his sons is not spoken of as a desecration, but as part of their loyalty (ḥesed) to their overlord (I Sam. 31:9–13; II Sam. 2:5). The references to burning of certain criminals, often cited in this connection, refer to a mode of execution, not to a mode of burial (Gen. 38:24; Lev. 20:14; 21:9), and note the remarkable way in which the Mishnah (Sanh. 7:2) prescribes that this be carried out – burning of the corpse is not involved. Bodies were buried clothed and carried to the tomb on a bier (II Sam. 3:31), but not in a coffin. Joseph's coffin is to be understood as Egyptian custom (Gen. 50:26).

The New Testament sheds some light on Jewish burial practices of the first century C.E. Jesus' disciples took his body, bought a great quantity of myrrh and aloes, "and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:40). There was a delay in completing the preparation of the body for burial because of the Sabbath (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56). Luke (7:11–17) gives a vivid picture of the simple funeral of the poor; the body of a young man of Nain is borne out of the city on a pallet, clothed but without coffin, followed by the weeping mother and "much people of the city."

In Post-Biblical Times

Rabbinic legend stressed the antiquity of inhumation by relating that Adam and Eve learned the art of burial from a raven which showed them how to dispose of the body of their dead son Abel by scratching away at a spot in the earth where it had interred one of its own kin (PdRE 21). Maimonides ruled that even a testamentary direction not to be buried is to be overruled by the scriptural injunction of burial (Maim. Yad, Evel, 12:1 and Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Positive Commandments no. 231). The Talmud (Git. 61a) rules that the burial of gentiles is also a religious duty (cf. Tosef., Git. 5:5 and TJ, Git. 5:9, 47c).

In talmudic times, burial took place in caves, hewn tombs, sarcophagi, and catacombs; and a secondary burial, i.e., a re-interment ( likkut aẓamot ) of the remains sometimes took place about one year after the original burial in ossuaries (Maim. Yad, Evel, 12:8). The rabbinic injunction (Sanh. 47a) that neither the righteous and the sinners, nor two enemies (Jeroham b. Meshullam, Sefer Adam ve-Ḥavvah (Venice, 1553), 231d, netiv 28) should be buried side by side is the origin of the custom of reserving special rows in the cemetery for rabbis, scholars, and prominent persons.

Jewish custom insists on prompt burial as a matter of respect for the dead, a consideration of particular relevance in hot climates. According to one kabbalistic source, burial refreshes the soul of the deceased, and only after burial will it be admitted to God's presence (Midrash ha-Ne'lam to Ruth; cf. Zohar, Ex. 151a). The precedents set by the prompt burials of Sarah (Gen. 23) and of Rachel (Gen. 35:19) are reinforced by the Torah's express command that even the body of a man who had been hanged shall not remain upon the tree all night, but "thou shalt surely bury him the same day" (Deut. 21:23). The Talmud (BK 81a) states that speedy burial of a corpse found unattended (met mitzvah) was one of the ten enactments ordained by Joshua at the conquest of Canaan and is incumbent even on the high priest who was otherwise forbidden to become unclean through contact with the dead (Nazir 7:1). Josephus records that it is forbidden to let a corpse lie unburied (Apion, 2:211), and consideration for the dead is one of the central features of Tobit (2:8). Some delays in burial are, however, justified: "Honor of the dead" demands that the proper preparation for a coffin and shrouds be made, and that relatives and friends pay their last respects (Sanh. 47a; Sh. Ar., YD 357:1). Even then, however, only a few hours should elapse (David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, Responsa, Warsaw ed., 1 (1882), no. 311). In talmudic times, while the burial was not delayed, graves were "watched" for a period of three days to avoid all possibility of pseudo-death (Sem. 8:1). Later, however, it became customary to bury as soon after death as possible and in 1772, when the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (with Moses Mendelssohn's approval) decreed an interval of three days before the burial, the leading rabbinic authorities protested vigorously (Ḥatam Sofer, YD 338). Certain delays are unavoidable. Funerals may not take place on the Sabbath or on the Day of Atonement; and although the rabbis at one time permitted funerals on the first day of a festival, provided that certain functions were performed by gentiles, and regarded the second day of yom tov as a weekday as far as the dead are concerned (Beẓah 6a), some modern communities prefer postponement. Where there are two interments at the same time, respect demands that the burial of a scholar precedes that of an am ha-areẓ ("average citizen"), and that of a woman always precedes that of a man.

The duty of burial, although primarily an obligation incumbent on the heirs (Gen. 23:3 and 25:9; Ket 48a), ultimately rests with the whole community. In talmudic times, the communal fraternal societies ( ḥevra kaddisha ) for the burial of the dead evolved out of an appreciation of this duty (MK 27b).

Similarly, escorting the dead (especially a deceased scholar) to his last resting place is considered a great mitzvah "the fruit of which a man enjoys in this world while the stock remains for him in the world to come" (Pe'ah 1:1 as adapted in the morning service). It justifies even an interruption in the study of the Torah (Ket. 17a and Sh. Ar., YD 361:1) and is called "the true kindness" (ḥesed shel emet) since one can expect no reciprocation of any sort (Rashi to Gen. 47:29; cf. Gen. R., ad loc.). Josephus states that "All who pass by when a corpse is buried must accompany the funeral and join in the lamentations" (Apion, 2:205); the minimum duty is to rise as the funeral cortege passes (TJ, Bik. 3:3, 65c; Sh. Ar., YD 361:4), and accompany it for four cubits ("four paces"). "One who sees a funeral procession and does not escort it," states the Talmud (Ber. 18a), "transgresses thereby 'whoso mocketh the poor (i.e., the dead) blasphemeth his Maker' (Prov. 17:5), and should be placed under a ban" (YD 361:3). Only if the hearse passes a bridal cortege is the bride given preference: to honor the living is considered greater than to honor the dead (Ket. 17a, Sem. 11:6, although cf. Maimonides' conflicting opinion, Yad, Evel 14:8). A custom instituted by kabbalists, and still largely observed in Jerusalem, forbids sons to follow the bier of their father and attend his funeral.

In rabbinic times, funeral processions were led by lamenting female mourners, often professionals. The Mishnah quotes R. Judah as ruling that "even the poorest in Israel should hire not less than two flutes and one wailing woman" for his wife's funeral (Ket. 4:4). Women also composed elegies that were chanted aloud, as evidenced by the Talmud's inclusion of eight elegies attributed to the women of Shoken-Zeb in Babylon (MK 28b). Prohibitions against women's voices being heard in public were relaxed for funerary rituals (Kid. 80b; Suk. 52a). The more elaborate ancient rituals have either disappeared or been modernized. The recital of psalms in the home still precedes the burial act; however, the custom of having musicians (Ket. 46b), torchbearers, and barefooted professional mourners in the funeral procession has been discontinued. In Great Britain, the custom of reciting the meḥillah (asking pardon of the corpse on the arrival at the cemetery) was discontinued by Chief Rabbi Marcus Adler in 1887. The dressing (halbashah) of the dead (even princes) in costly garments of gold or silver is forbidden (Maim., Yad, Evel 4:2), despite the rabbis' view that anyone who dresses the dead in comely shrouds (takhrikhim, from the Hebrew verb "to wrap up") testifies to a belief in the resurrection (Nimmukei Yosef to Alfasi, MK 17a). R. Judah ha-Nasi expressly ordered that he be buried in a simple linen shirt (MK 27b). Since talmudic times, it has been customary to bury a male in the tallit which he had used during his lifetime, after its fringes have been deliberately rendered ritually unfit. The victim of an unnatural death is buried in his blood-soaked garments over which the white shrouds are placed in order that all parts of the body should be interred (Naḥmanides, Torat ha-Adam; Inyan ha-hoẓa'ah).

Coffins were unknown to the early Israelites (as they are to contemporary Oriental Jewry). The corpse was laid horizontally and face upward on a bier (II Sam. 3:31); the custom of burying important personages in coffins evolved only later. R. Judah ha-Nasi, however, ordered that holes be drilled in the base of his coffin so that his body might touch the soil (TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b) and Maimonides mentions the custom of burial in wooden coffins (Yad, Evel 4:4). In Ereẓ Israel, coffins are not usually used. In the Diaspora, it is still customary to spread earth from Ereẓ Israel on the head and face of the corpse, but the customs of placing ink and pen beside a deceased bridegroom (Sem. 8:7) and a key and book of accounts beside a childless man (ibid.) have been discontinued (Baḥ, YD 350). The older practice of food offerings to the dead (Deut. 26:14; Tob. 4:17; Ecclus. 30:18), of placing lamps in graves, and of burying the personal effects of princes and notables with the corpse (as was done for Gamaliel I by Onkelos (Av. Zar. 11a)), have completely disappeared. The more recent custom of placing flowers on the grave is discouraged by Orthodox rabbis because of ḥukkat ha-goi . Before the funeral, the mourners tear their upper garment as a symbol of mourning ( Keri'ah ).

The funeral service, now often conducted in the vernacular, varies according to the age of the deceased. A male child who died before he was seven days old is circumcised and given a Hebrew name at the cemetery (Haggahot Maimoniyyot, Milah 1:15). Only two men and one woman participate at the funeral of children who die before they reach the age of 30 days, although children who have learned to walk and thus are already known to many people are escorted as adults. In such and normal cases, the coffin is carried on the shoulders of the pallbearers into the cemetery prayer hall (ohel; Maim., Yad, Evel 4:2) where the ẓidduk ha-din ("acknowledgment of the Divine judgment") beginning with the affirmation "The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are judgment" is recited. In some communities, this prayer is recited after the coffin has been lowered into the grave, and on those days on which the Taḥanun is not said, Psalm 16 is substituted for ẓidduk ha-din. In the cemetery while the coffin is being borne to the grave, it is customary (except on those days when the Taḥanun is not recited) to halt at least three times and recite Psalm 91. In talmudic times, seven stops were made for lamentations (see Ket. 2:10; BB 6:7), symbolizing the seven times that the word hevel ("vanity") occurs in Ecclesiastes 1:2 (BB 100b); corresponding to the days of the creation of the world and also to the seven stages which man experiences during his lifetime (Eccles. R. 1:2). Some Sephardi rites have the custom of seven hakkafot ("circumambulations") at the grave.

When the coffin is lowered into the grave, those present say, "May he (or she) come to his (or her) place in peace"; they then fill in the grave. As they leave, they throw grass and earth behind them in the direction of the grave, while saying, "Remember (God) that we are of dust." Prior to leaving the cemetery they wash their hands (in Jerusalem, it is customary not to dry them afterward). In the ohel, Psalm 91 and the Kaddish are recited by the mourners. The participants at the funeral then recite "May the Almighty comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem" as they stand in two rows between which the mourners pass. The precise order of the funeral varies from place to place and from community to community. Many of the customs among the Sephardi Jews are closer to those of talmudic times than Ashkenazi customs.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

De Vaux, Anc Isr, 56–61 (incl bibl. p. 523); Callaway, in: BA, 26 (1963), 74–91; Bender, in: JQR, 6 (1894), 317–47, 664–71; 7 (1895), 101–18, 259–69; J.J. (L.) Greenwald (Grunwald), Kol Bo al Avelut (1947); H. Rabinowicz, Guide to Life (1964); J.M. Tykocinski, Gesher ha-Ḥayyim (1944); S. Freehof, Current Reform Response (1969), index.