Partly because of the warm climate of Palestine and partly because the corpse was considered ritually impure, the Hebrews buried their dead as soon as possible and usually within twenty-four hours of death (Deuteronomy 21:23). To allow a body to decay or be desecrated above the ground was highly dishonorable (1 Kings 14:10-14;
2 Kings 9:34-37), and any corpse found by the wayside was required to be buried (2 Samuel 21:10-14).
Though the Bible nowhere systematically describes Hebrew mortuary practice, several features can be gleaned from individual passages. Joseph closed his father's eyelids soon after Jacob's death (Genesis 46:4). Jesus' body was prepared for burial by anointing with aromatic oils and spices and wrapping in a linen cloth (Mark 16:1;
John 19:39). The arms and legs of Lazarus' body were bound with cloth, and the face covered by a napkin (John 11:44). The body of Tabitha was washed in preparation for burial (Acts 9:37).
The dead were buried in caves, rock-cut tombs, or in the ground. It was desirable to be buried in the family tomb, so Sarah (Genesis 23:19), Abraham (Genesis 25:9), Isaac, Rebekah, Leah (Genesis 49:31) and Jacob (Genesis 50:13) were all buried in the cave of Machpelah, east of Hebron. Burial sites were marked by trees (Genesis 35:8), pillars (Genesis 35:19-20), and piles of stones (Joshua 7:26). The burials of the wealthy or politically powerful were sometimes accompanied by lavish accessories, including robes, jewelry, furniture, weapons, and pottery (1 Samuel 28:14;
In contrast to its wide usage among the Greeks and Romans, cremation is not described as normal practice in the Bible. Bodies were cremated only in exceptional cases such as decay following mutilation (1 Samuel 31:12) or the threat of plague. Even in these instances, cremation was partial so that the bones remained. Embalming is mentioned only in the burial accounts of Jacob and Joseph (Genesis 50:2-3,
Genesis 50:26) and there only because of the Egyptian setting and plans to move the bodies. Apparently, embalming was an Egyptian practice.
When preparations for burial were completed, the body was usually placed on a bier and carried to the burial site in a procession of relatives, friends, and servants (Amos 6:10). The procession carried out the mourning ritual, which could include (1) baldness and cutting of beard, (2) rending garments and wearing sackcloth, (3) loud and agonized weeping, and (4) putting dust on the head and sitting in ashes (2 Samuel 1:11-12;
2 Samuel 13:31;
2 Samuel 14:2;
Joel 1:8). The Canaanite practices of laceration and mutilation are forbidden in the Torah (Leviticus 19:27-28;
The period of mourning varied in response to circumstances. Mourning for Jacob lasted seventy days (Genesis 50:3), while for Aaron and Moses it lasted thirty days (Numbers 20:29;
Deuteronomy 34:5-8). Women captured in war were allowed to mourn the deaths of their parents one month before having to marry their captors (Deuteronomy 21:11-13).
The deaths of the famous prompted poetic laments. David mourned for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17-27), and Jeremiah lamented the death of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25).
Professional mourners are referred to in
Jeremiah 9:17-18 and
Amos 5:16 as “such as are skilled in lamentation,” and in
Matthew 9:23 as “minstrels.” In the latter account Jesus seemed to dismiss them as He healed the ruler's daughter. It is interesting to note that Jesus' own response to Lazarus' death was comparatively simple; He wept quietly at the tomb (John 11:35-36).
Israel's mourning rites reflect in part the belief that death is something evil. All contact with death—whether it happened by touching a corpse, the bones of a corpse, a grave, or a house which contained a dead body—made the Israelite unclean and in need of purification. In addition to personal sorrow, the mourning rites reflected at least to a degree the mourner's humiliation because of his necessarily close contact with the body of the deceased.