Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


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 Palestine 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 Palestine 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."


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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.