The pit or cave in which a dead body is buried. The variety of grave sites used by the Hebrews was determined by several factors: the circumstances of death, the surrounding terrain, and the time available for preparation and burial. The most usual grave was the shaft or trench. While the use of pits for collective burial sites is not mentioned in the Bible, several have been excavated in Palestine. Caves were often chosen as a convenient alternative to the cost and time involved in cutting a rock tomb. Because they offered both an abundance of caves and ideal locations for constructing rock hewn shafts, Palestinian hillsides were a common choice for grave sites.
The tomb cut out of rock was sometimes fashioned to serve as a multiple grave with separate chambers. Ledges were often constructed to hold individual family members; and when the tomb was full, the bones from previous burials were set aside to make more room. The bones were placed in jars or stone boxes called ossuaries, which resembled vessels used by the Romans to store ashes after cremation. Ossuaries sometimes held the bones of more than one person and were frequently marked with decorative or identifying designs. The entrances to tombs were secured either by hinged doorways or large flat stones which could be moved by rolling. The most desirable grave site was the family tomb to which ample reference is made in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. The Hebrews apparently envisioned a “shade” existence in death and preferred proximity to ancestors over solitude for the placement of their loved ones' remains.
While most graves were left unmarked, some were marked with trees (Genesis 35:8) or stone pillars.
2 Samuel 18:18 anticipates the use of pillars, but this practice was never widespread in biblical times. The graves of the infamous dead were often marked with a pile of stones (Achan,
Joshua 7:26; Absalom,
2 Samuel 18:17; the king of Ai and the five Canaanite kings,
Joshua 10:27). In New Testament times graves were whitewashed each spring so people could see them easily and avoid touching them to prevent ritual defilement during the Passover and Pentecost pilgrimages (Matthew 23:27; compare
Coffins were generally not used in ancient Palestine. The body was placed on a simple bier and transported to the grave site. While Canaanites often placed containers of food and water in their tombs, the Israelites largely avoided this custom.
Biblical examples of grave site selection include the cave of Machpelah at Hebron which served Sarah and other members of Abraham's family (Genesis 25:9-10;
Genesis 50:13). Joshua was buried in “his inheritance in Timnath-serah (Joshua 24:30); Samuel on his estate at Ramah (1 Samuel 25:1;
1 Samuel 28:3); Joab on his property in the desert (1 Kings 2:34); Manasseh “in the garden of his own house” (2 Kings 21:18); and Jesus in the garden tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:60;
In Hebrew thought graves were not simply places to deposit human remains. They were in a sense extensions of Sheol, the place of the dead. Since the realm of Sheol was threatening and since each grave was an individual expression of Sheol, the Israelites avoided burial sites when possible and treated them with circumspection. They performed purification rites when contact was unavoidable. See Death; Eternal Life; Sheol.