As the diversity of culture continues to increase, people often wonder, "What does the Bible say about burial?" Were there burial customs in the Bible that can give insight and guidance for a burial today? Both the Old and New Testaments portray symbolism showing respect for a death. Burial customs reflected the culture's views of death and the afterlife.
What Does the Bible Say About Burial?
The dead of the faithful deserved proper and respectful treatment in both the Old and New Testaments. Biblical references paint a descriptive picture of burial rather than offer an outline of the technical procedures. Even the written reference of the description used gentle terms out of respect and honor.
- "He lay with his fathers" (1 Kgs 14:21; 2 Chr 12:16) indicated a natural death.
- "He was gathered to his people" (Gen 25:8; Deut 32:50) was thought to describe a reunion with the ancestors and hinted at a continuation of life beyond the grave.
To remain unburied was considered shameful, even an indication of divine punishment (1 Kgs 14:11; Ps 78:3; Jer 7:33).
Burial Customs in Bible Times
The Bible held several customs for burial. Traditions affirmed that after a person breathed the last breath, the eyes were shut and closed (Gen 46:4). The law required that burial of the dead occurred the same day, before sundown (Lev 10:4; Deut 21:23). This was done partially for sanitary considerations, and also for a fear of defilement (Num 19:11-14). Custom dictated the dead were clothed in burial, often in their favorite every day clothing (Ezk 32:27; 1 Sam 28:14). A time of mourning for family and close friends would occur following the death, often at the family home (John 11:17-20).
Early Biblical Burial Sites
Early in the Bible, interment would occur at the location of death. A site secured near a tree provided the ideal location. Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, was buried near Bethel beneath the shade of an oak tree (Gen 35:8). The tree signified divine presence. Burial by a tree expressed the desire for life to continue, and the tree honored the memory of the individual. Since the time of the Garden of Eden and "the tree of life" (Gen 2:9), the tree was associated with life beyond the grave.
Additional Biblical Burial Sites
Later, the Old Testament refers often to an Israelite's desire to be buried in the family's burial site. This was often done in the higher areas, hewn in stones or caves. The cave of Machpelah at Hebron provides one such example.
- Abraham purchased this site from Ephron the Hittite at the time of his wife Sarah's death (Gen 23).
- When Abraham died, his children Isaac and Ishmael laid his body to rest in the same tomb (Gen 25:9).
- In turn, Jacob buried his parents Isaac and Rebekah and his own wife Leah (Gen 49:31).
- Jacob's body was buried with his father's, following Jacob's own request (Gen 49:29; Gen 50:13).
- Jacob's son Joseph made his family promise that his remains would be preserved so they could be carried back to his homeland and properly buried with the family when the Israelites finally returned from slavery in Egypt (Gen 50:25).
Burial Spices in Biblical Times
By the time of the New Testament, the burial and mourning process included more ritual. In a short time after death, family members came to mourn and prepare the body for burial. The body would be washed, then anointed with a variety of oils and spices. The body would then be wrapped in white linen grave clothes that also contained spices (John 19:39-40). The spices often included:
- Myrrh, a gum from Arabian trees known to be very fragrant (John 19:39)
- Aloe, a fragrant wood often mixed with myrrh (John 19:39)
- Balsam or balm of Gilead, a plant that grew in the plains of Jericho and the hot valleys of southern Israel
- Sammim is a general Hebrew term for aromatics used in preparing oils and spices
- The mixture of frankincense and spices was overseen by a certain group of the Levites (1 Chr 9:29-30)
Periods of Mourning Following the Burial
Family and friends gathered for an intense period of mourning (Zech 12:12-14). The length of time of the intense mourning varied from three to seven days, depending on the family's particular circumstances. Lazarus had been in the tomb four days when Jesus arrived to find friends and family still gathered (John 11:17-19). Following the sealing of the tomb, a time of remembrance and mourning would last a total of 30 days.
Comfort and Support from the Community
The community rallied to support the family that was left behind to grieve. The burial process reminded everyone of their own family members who had died in the past. The times of reflection made death a significant and valued time in the life of the community. The home of the deceased was considered unclean during the time of mourning, so no food could be prepared in the home. Neighbors would provide food to be eaten outside the house or would invite the family to their own homes to eat. Neighbors and family could share memories of the deceased together, providing comfort and strength to the family.
Does the Bible Say About Visiting Graves?
The Bible even describes visiting graves in a gentle manner that honors the dead. The Bible records, "So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb." (Gen 35:19-20 ESV). The phrase "to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb" indicates it was a continuing memorial and people were to visit and pause to reflect.
The Bible's Most Famous Example of Visiting a Grave
Following the death of Jesus in the New Testament, the ceremonial observances of the Passover and the Sabbath prevented visitation to the tomb by any family or friends. The Bible records activities that provide affirmation of the burial process and visitation. When the Sabbath had passed, women went to the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). Luke indicates the women had prepared spices ahead of time (Luke 24:1). Their tasks began early after sunrise (Mark 16:2).
What Does the Bible Say About Cremation and Burial?
The Bible does not define cremation as a preferred means to inter a body. However, there is no prohibition of the process in the New Testament. There are examples of bodies that were cremated, with the remaining bones buried. This occurred if the bodies had been mutilated in some way at the time of death.
- Saul and Jonathan (1 Sam 31:11-13)
- Achan and his family (Josh 7:25)
Ashes to Ashes
The phrase "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" may sound like a Bible verse, but it actually comes from a funeral service listed in the Book of Common Prayer. The service finds its basis on verses from the Bible (Gen 3:19; Gen 18:27; Job 30:19). The concept is a thread throughout the Bible.
- God formed man from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7).
- God tells Adam "you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).
- Solomon summarizes "All are from the dust, and to dust all return" (Eccl 3:20).
- Abraham, speaking to God, asks, "Who am I, but dust and ashes?" (Gen 18:27).
- Covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes conveyed sorrow and penance (2 Sam 13:19; Esther 4:1-3; Isa 58:5; Dan 9:3).
Making Informed Decisions Based on Biblical Tradition
Discerning the Biblical facts from the traditions and views of burial and cremation can help the grieving family make informed decisions. Choices that affirm faith and respect the dead bring comfort and encouragement during the mourning process.