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BURIAL. The act of placing a dead body in a tomb, in the earth or in the sea, generally with appropriate ceremonies; as opposed to exposure to the beasts, or abandonment or burning. Various peoples, notably the Egyptians, who believed that their dead would live and practice ordinary human occupations in “the land of the dead,” often went to great lengths to preserve the bodies of their departed loved ones. They sometimes placed with the mummy tools or instruments or weapons, and occasionally killed and buried a wife or a servant to accompany the one whom they had buried.

Partly because of God’s declaration to fallen man, “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen.3.19), the people of Israel almost always buried their dead; and because the land of Canaan had so many caves, these places were very frequently used as places of burial. Probably the prevailing motive for our respect for the dead, and even for the place of burial, is the sense of decency and our feeling of love for the person, often without regarding the fact that the real person has gone and that only his former “residence” remains.

The story of the treatment of the bodies of Saul and of his sons sheds light on the subject. The Philistines beheaded the bodies, exhibiting the heads throughout their land and fastening Saul’s body to the wall of Beth Shan (1Sam.31.8-1Sam.31.13). The men of Israel rescued the bodies, burned them, reverently buried the bones under a tree, and mourned seven days.

It is remarkable that although God had given to Abraham the deed of the land of Canaan (Gen.15.18-Gen.15.21), the only land that the patriarchs possessed before Joshua’s time was the burial places for the original family: a cave at Hebron and a field at Shechem (cf. Gen.23.1-Gen.23.20—the burial of Sarah; 49:29-32—Jacob’s final request; and Josh.24.32-Josh.24.33—the burial of the mummy of Joseph and the body of Eleazar). In Canaan, in ancient times and in the more primitive parts of the land even today, there was (and is) no embalming in most cases but immediate burial to avoid unpleasant odors (Acts.5.5-Acts.5.10) and ceremonial uncleanness (Num.19.11-Num.19.22). In the time of Christ, the bodies were wrapped in clean linen (Matt.27.57-Matt.27.60), and spices and ointments were prepared (Luke.23.56).

The strange story of the dead Moabite reviving when he touched the bones of Elisha (2Kgs.13.20-2Kgs.13.21) shows not only the speedy decomposition of a body but also the informality of burials in the time of war or necessity. The still stranger story of the disobedient prophet (1Kgs.13.1-1Kgs.13.34) shows how a heathen altar could be defiled by burning bones on it (1Kgs.13.1-1Kgs.13.3) and shows also the desire of a prophet to be buried near another whom he honored (1Kgs.13.30-1Kgs.13.31). In several cases of sinful rulers, ordinary burial was denied to their bodies: the dogs ate Jezebel (2Kgs.9.10); Jehoram of Judah, who died with incurable diseases, was not buried with the kings (2Chr.21.18-2Chr.21.20); Uzziah was buried in a field, not in the tombs of the kings (2Chr.26.23); and Jehoiakim was given the burial of a donkey (Jer.22.18-Jer.22.19).

Time of burial.

Among the Jews, as well as people of the Near E generally, burial usually took place on the day of death (cf. Deut 21:23) or within twenty-four hours. Problems of sanitation and fear of possible defilement through contact with a dead body (Num 9:10-14) constituted reasons for such swiftness, being exemplified by Abraham’s burying Sarah out of his sight (Gen 23:4) and Lazarus having been interred on the day he died (John 11:17, 39). Jesus’ body was buried on the day in which He was crucified (Matt 27:57-60; cf. Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13).

Care for the dead.

That burying of the dead in the Stone, Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages was considered important is suggested in the care evidenced in handling parts of the skeleton and in the deposit of grave objects with the corpse, as seen in such places as Wadi el-Mugharah, Jericho and Teleilat el-Ghassul.

The Jews, as Tacitus (Hist 5.5) indicates, were averse to cremating the corpse, as was frequently the practice of the Greeks (cf. Sophocles, Electra 1136-1139; for inhumation, Thuc 1, 134,6; Plato Phaedo 115E) and of the Romans who in Cicero’s day used both methods (De leg 2, 22, 56). The seeming exception in the burning of the bodies of Saul and his sons (1 Sam 31:11-13) prob. was an emergency measure lest the Philistines molest the bodies, for the same men then buried their bones. Early Bible legislation required that those guilty of sexual immorality (Lev 20:14; 21:9) and those under a curse as Achan and his family (Josh 7:15, 25) were to be burned.

There is no Biblical evidence that embalming, a process so prevalent among the Egyptians, was practiced by the Jews, except in the isolated cases of Jacob and Joseph (Gen 50:2, 26) where the latter’s official position in Egypt dictated the procedure.

Receptacles used in burials.

Of several receptacles in, or on, which the corpse was placed the first was the bier on which the body was placed before burial, this structure being indicated both by מִטָּה, H4753, usually meaning “bed” but being the bier in 2 Samuel 3:31 and 2 Chronicles 16:14 (in this latter instance the thought is possibly crypt; and by σορός, G5049, [Luke 7:14]).

Archeology has shown that pottery storage jars sometimes were used to hold the remains of adults (as at Byblos) and of infants and small children.

Although the Egyptians customarily used the coffin, often elaborately decorated, this object does not seem to have been common among the Jews, mentioned in the Bible only in Joseph’s case (Gen 50:26, אֲרוֹן, H778, “portable chest”). There have been found terra cotta coffins with anthropoid designs at Beth-Shan and Dibon, and in Hel. and Rom. times elaborately decorated marble sarcophagi were used.

Although not mentioned in Scripture, ossuaries (bone-boxes) were used early (cf. the house-shaped clay one from Hederah, c. 3500 b.c.) and were quite common in the early Rom. period, rectangular limestone ones, twenty to thirty inches in length, with personal names and decorations often inscribed on them being found near Jerusalem in caves and tombs. These were used for bones after the flesh had decomposed, and grave space was needed for other corpses.

Types of burying places included simple holes or pits (sometimes lined with stones or bricks), stone slab dolmen graves (c. 4500 b.c.) as well as natural caves and tombs hewn out of rocky hillsides.

In the Hel. and through the Rom. periods the poor continued to use caves and cisterns, but other hewn tombs became larger and more elaborate like the Mausoleum of Queen Helena of Adiabene (Jos. War. V. iv. 2) and the structures in the Kidron Valley opposite the Temple area, with catacombs also being used in Christian times. (See Tomb.)

At times tombs included multiple units used by families, as exemplified by Abraham’s family tomb at the cave of Machpelah (Gen 23), such practice of communal burial being seen throughout Pal. by 3000 b.c. Religious scruples did not preclude the use of the same grave space over again, for archeology has shown that often grave areas were reused, parts of old skeletons being pushed aside to make room for the new. In addition, graves for single burials appear, for example, in the Bible (Aaron, Deut 10:6; Moses, Deut 34:6; and Jephthah, Judg 12:7), at Jericho (late third millennium b.c.) and at Qumran (about the time of Christ).

Geographical locations of burial places.

Ritual in burial.

In Isaiah’s time part of the idolatrous practices of the people involved necromancy as they sat in the tombs (Isa 65:4).

It is well known through excavations at such places as Dothan, Gezer, Jericho, etc., that grave goods were deposited with the dead, including such things as weapons, jewelry, lamps, furniture, and food. The practice of depositing the last item may have evoked the prohibition in Deuteronomy 26:14 regarding not giving food to the dead.

Concepts regarding burial.

Burial was considered a necessary act, the deprival of which, with the resultant exposure to the ravages of beasts, was considered a serious indignity and calamity (2 Kings 9:36, 37; Ezek 29:5). Even criminals were allowed to be buried (Deut 21:22, 23).

The law instructed that touching a corpse brought ceremonial defilement (Lev 21:1; Num 19:11ff.), but it was considered a proper act to protect the bodies of slain warriors until they could be buried (2 Sam 21:1-14) and to bury those slain in times of persecution (Tobit 1:17-19; 2:8).

Although there is no indication that the heathen practice of depositing grave goods with the dead with any implications of belief in life after death connected with it had any influence on the Jews, yet Ezekiel 32:17-28 seems to set forth a belief in an abode of the dead in part at least similar to that set forth in Luke 16:19-23.


K. Kenyon, Digging Up Jericho (1957), 60-65, etc.; H. E. Stutchbury, “Excavations in the Kidron Valley,” PEQ XCIII (1961), 101-113; J. E. Callaway, “Burials in Ancient Palestine,” BA XXVI (1963), 74-91; D. Fishwick, “Talpioth Ossuaries Again,” NTS X (1963), 49-61; B. A. Mastin, “Chalcolithic Ossuaries and Houses for the Dead,” PEQ XCVII (1965), 153-160; J. M. Myers, II Chronicles, The Anchor Bible (1965), 92; J. B. Pritchard, “First Excavations at Tell es-Sa ’idîyeh,” BA XXVIII (1965), 10-17; J. Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible (1967), 70.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(qebhurah; compare New Testament to entaphidsai):


1. Reasons for This

2. The Burial of Jesus

3. The Usual Time

4. Duties of Next of Kin


1. Often Informal and Hasty

2. Usually with More Ceremony

3. Contrasts between Jewish Customs and Other Peoples’(1) Cremation

(2) Embalming


1. Coffins Unknown

2. Professional Mourners


1. Graves Dug in the Earth

2. Family Tombs. Later Customs

3. Sealed Stones

4. Stated Times of Mourning

5. Excessive Mourning

6. Dirge-Songs




It is well to recall at the outset that there are points of likeness and of marked contrast between oriental and occidental burial customs in general, as well as between the burial customs of ancient Israel and those of other ancient peoples. These will be brought out, or suggested later in this article. I. Immediate Burial Considered Urgent.

1. Reasons for This:

The burial of the dead in the East in general was and is often effected in such a way as to suggest to the westerner indecent haste. Dr. Post says that burial among the people of Syria today seldom takes place later than ten hours after death, often earlier; but, he adds, "the rapidity of decomposition, the excessive violence of grief, the reluctance of Orientals to allow the dead to remain long in the houses of the living, explain what seems to us the indecency of haste." This still requires the survivors, as in the case of Abraham on the death of Sarah, to bury their dead out of their sight (Ge 23:1-4); and it in part explains the quickness with which the bodies of Nadab and Abihu were Carried out of the camp (Le 10:4), and those of Ananias and Sapphira were hastened off to burial (Ac 5:1-11). Then, of course, the defilement to which contact with a dead body gave occasion, and the judgment that might come upon a house for harboring the body of one dying under a Divine judgment, further explain such urgency and haste.

2. The Burial of Jesus:

It was in strict accordance with such customs and the provision of the Mosaic law (De 21:23; compare Ga 3:13), as well as in compliance with the impulses of true humanity, that Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus for burial on the very day of the crucifixion (Mt 27:39 ff).

3. The Usual Time:

The dead are often in their graves, according to present custom, within two or three hours after death. Among oriental Jews burial takes place, if possible, within twenty-four hours after death, and frequently on the day of death. Likewise Mohammedans bury their dead on the day of death, if death takes place in the morning; but if in the afternoon or at night, not until the following day.

4. Duties of Next of Kin:

As soon as the breath is gone the oldest son, or failing him, the nearest of kin present, closes the eyes of the dead (compare Ge 46:4, "and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes"). The mouth, too, is closed and the jaws are bound up (compare Joh 11:44, "and his face was bound about with a napkin"). The death is announced, as it was of old, by a tumult of lamentation preceded by a shrill cry, and the weeping and wailing of professional mourners (compare Mr 5:38 ff).

See Mourning.

II. Preparations for Burial.

1. Often Informal and Hasty:

These are often informal and hasty. Under the tyranny of such customs as those noted, it is often impossible to make them elaborate. Canon Tristram says: "As interments take place at latest on the evening of the day of death, and frequently at night, there can be no elaborate preparations. The corpse, dressed in such clothes as were worn in life, is stretched on a bier with a cloth thrown over it, until carried forth for burial" (Eastern Customs, 94). In Ac 5:6 we read of Ananias, "The young men .... wrapped him round, and they carried him out and buried him." "What they did," as Dr. Nicol says, "was likely this: they unfastened his girdle, and then taking the loose under-garment and the wide cloak which was worn above it, used them as a winding-sheet to cover the corpse from head to foot." In other words, there was little ceremony and much haste.

2. Usually with More Ceremony:

3. Contrasts between Jewish Customs and Other Peoples’:

This brings us to note two marked contrasts between customs in Israel and among other peoples.

(1) Cremation:

With the Greeks it was customary to cremate the dead (see Cremation); but there was nothing in Jewish practice exactly corresponding to this. Tacitus (Hist. v.5) expressly says, in noting the contrast with Roman custom, that it was a matter of piety with the Jews "to bury rather than to burn dead bodies." The burning of the bodies of Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh-Gilead (1Sa 31:11-13) seems to have been rather a case of emergency, than of conformity to any such custom, as the charred bones were buried by the same men under the tamarisk at Jabesh, and later, by David’s order, removed and laid to rest in the sepulcher of Kish (2Sa 21:12-14). According to the Mosaic law burning was reserved, either for the living who had been found guilty of unnatural sins (Le 20:4; 21:9), or for those who died under a curse, as in the case of Achan and his family, who after they had been stoned to death were, with all their belongings, burned with fire (Jos 7:25).

(2) Embalming:

As the burning practiced by the Greeks found no place in Jewish law and custom, so embalming, as practiced by the Egyptians, was unknown in Israel, the cases of Jacob and Joseph being clearly special, and in conformity to Egyptian custom under justifying circumstances. When Jacob died it was Joseph, the Egyptian official, who "commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father" (Ge 50:2), and it was conventionally the fit thing that when Joseph himself died his body was embalmed and "put in a coffin (sarcophagus) in Egypt" (Ge 50:26).

III. On the Way to the Grave:

When the preparations were made and the time came, the corpse was carried to the grave on a bier, or litter (miTTah). 1. Coffins Unknown:

Coffins were unknown in ancient Israel, as they are among the Jews of the East to this day. The only one mentioned in the Bible is the sarcophagus in which the embalmed body of Joseph was preserved, unless Asa’s bed (2Ch 16:14) be another, as some think. Moslems, like eastern Jews, never use coffins. The bier sometimes has a pole at each corner by means of which it is carried on the shoulders to the tomb.

See Bier.

2. Professional Mourners:

The procession of mourners is made up largely, of course, of relatives and friends of the deceased, but is led by professional mourning women, who make the air resound with their shrieks and lamentations (compare Ec 12:5; Jer 9:17; Am 5:16). See Mourning. Am 5:16 alludes to this custom in describing the mourning that shall be over the desolations of Israel: "Wailing shall be in all the broad ways; and they shall say in all the streets, Alas! alas! and they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skillful in lamentation to wailing." (Jer 9:17,18) breaks out: "Call for the mourning women, that they may come; .... and let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters." Dr. Fred. Bliss tells of a mourning delegation at the mahal, or mourning house, of a great man. "No matter how gaily they may be chatting they approach, when they reach the house they rush forward, handkerchiefs to face, sobbing, weeping, with utmost demonstrations of grief, going through them time after time as occasion requires." Amelia B. Edwards gives a vivid account of her first experience with such mourning: "It rose like the far-off wavering sound of many owls. It shrilled, swelled, wavered, dropped, and then died away, like the moaning of the wind at sea. We never heard anything so wild and plaintive." Among some Jews of today, it is said, the funeral procession moves swiftly, because there are supposed to be innumerable evil spirits (shedhim) hovering about, desirous to attack the soul, which is thought to be in the body until interment takes place and the corpse is actually covered (see DB, article "Burial").

IV. At the Grave.

When the grave, or place of entombment, is reached ceremonies more or less characteristic and peculiar to the Orient take place.

1. Graves Dug in the Earth:

When the body is let down into the ground, the bier, of course, is set aside, and at first a heap of stones only is piled over the shallow grave--to preserve the dead from the dreaded depredations of hyenas, jackals or thieves. Beyond question graves among ancient Jews were often simply dug in the earth, as they are with us, and as they are with Jews at Jerusalem and elsewhere in the East today. 2. Family Tombs. Later Customs:

3. Sealed Stones:

When the tomb was a cave, or was dug out from some rock, the entrance was often closed with a large circular stone set up on its edge or rim and rolled in its groove to the front of the mouth of the tomb, so as to close it securely. This stone was then often further secured by a strap, or by sealing. In such case it could easily be seen or known if the tomb had been disturbed. Pilate, it will be recalled, directed that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the body of Jesus was laid, should be carefully sealed and made as secure as the officials could make it. "So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them" (Mt 27:66).

4. Stated Times of Mourning:

In Syria, as elsewhere in the East, it is customary to have stated times after the burial for mourning at the tomb--for example on the third, seventh, and fortieth days, and again on the anniversary of the burial. The relatives or friends then go to the tomb without ornaments, often with hair disheveled; sometimes with head covered and faces blackened with soot, or ashes, or earth, in their oldest and poorest clothing, which is sometimes violently rent, and, sitting or moving in a circle around or near to the tomb, they break out in spells into weird, dirge-like singing or wailing.

5. Excessive Mourning:

6. Dirge-Songs:

The custom of dirge-songs seems to be alluded to (Mt 9:23; Mr 5:38) in the narrative of the healing of the ruler’s daughter: "Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute-players, and the crowd making a tumult." A characteristic oriental funeral procession and burial are vividly pictured in the narrative of the burial of Jacob (Ge 50:6-13).

V. Failure to Receive Burial Counted a Calamity or a Judgment.

VI. Places of Burial: How Marked.


HDB, article "Burial"; Keil, Biblical Arch., II, 199 f; Nowack, Heb Arch., I, 187 ff; "Burial" and "Tombs" in Kitto, Cycl.; Thomson, LB (see "Funerals" in Index); Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands; Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs.

George B. Eager

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