While the wealthy were taken care of when they died, where was the biblical burial place for the poor? Accounts of the Jewish people in the Old and New Testaments show that the poor were cared for in life as well as after death.
Traditionally, when a Jewish family member died, he or she was buried in the family grave. This grave was usually a low-ceiling cave, cut into stone. A grandfather could be buried in the same cave as his grandson, even if their deaths were decades apart from each other. The bodies were never cremated. They were wrapped and buried close to earth. A tombstone was placed over the grave or on the grave. Often the tombstones were etched with religious words or symbols.
Old Testament Accounts of Burials
The ancient Jews believed that if a body was not buried, its spirit would wander around aimlessly in Sheol (hell). A grave confined the soul to the body. It was a terrible disgrace not to be buried, so the Jews valued burying their dead and took care of their own. Only were criminals allowed not to be buried in a tomb or plot. Many were stoned and their bodies were then covered with rocks.
In the Bible, particularly in the book of Genesis, there are accounts of deaths and burials. Some of these include:
- Abraham and Sarah were buried in a cave called Machpelah. Abraham purchased this cave from a Hittite so that he and his family could have a burial place.
- Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, was buried under a tree.
- Jacob was placed in the tomb of his father Abraham. Issac, Rebekah and Leah were also buried here.
- The bones of Joseph were taken from Egypt during the Israelites exodus and buried in a field.
- Eleazar the son of Aaron was buried in a hill.
- Gideon was buried in the tomb of his father.
- Samuel was buried at his home in Ramah.
- Asahel was buried in his father's tomb.
- King Manasseh was buried in his own garden.
- King Asa was buried in his own tomb and placed on a bed of sweet-smelling spices.
What About the Tombs of the Poor?
Some of the poor who died were buried in common graves since they had no family cemeteries or plots. The Jewish culture and religion were filled with charitable acts, and the giving of alms to care for the poor was widely practiced. Those who were able financially, took care of the poor and the widows as well as strangers. In Jerusalem and other cities, the practice among the Jews was to always bury a body. After all, no one wanted to have to smell a rotting corpse in the streets.
Biblical Burial Place for the Poor was a Field
When Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, returned the coins, the Jewish officials called the money Blood Money and didn't think it was clean enough to go into the treasury. Documented in the gospel of Matthew, a potter's field was purchased with this money. The officials decided that it would be a place to bury foreigners or Gentiles, who were not considered clean. Along with this way of thinking, burying people who had no one to bury them was an act of piety for the Jewish officials in the synagogues. Many elderly returned to Jerusalem and died there without sufficient burial funds. Their bodies were taken to this field for burial.
New Testament Burials
Jesus Christ fit into the category of being poor and he did not have a family plot in the region where he was crucified. In the book of Matthew it is written that a wealthy man named Joseph, who lived in the town of Arimathea, requested Jesus' body and took it to his own family tomb cut from a stone. This was an act of affection and honor. Perhaps he could not bear to have Jesus subject to the typical burial of those who were crucified. Crucified bodies were placed in the common burial fields. Joseph of Arimathea's tomb had never been used before. Per custom, Jesus' body was wrapped in a linen cloth and placed inside the tomb. Typically, the entrances to the tombs were protected from wild animals by large stones that covered them.
The Early Church Burials
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christian church in 70 A. D. used catacombs for burials. This was because the region was crowded in Rome and the places for burial owned by the Christians above ground were few. The catacombs were economical, safe, and practical. The early Christians were poor, so this method of burial was a solution to their problems and became a new biblical burial place for the poor.