GRAVE (Heb. qĕvĕr, she’ôl, Gr. mnēmeion). A place for the interment of the dead; a tomb, a sepulcher. Graves and accompanying burial customs differed in biblical times from country to country. Among the Hebrews, graves were sometimes mere holes in the earth (Gen.35.8; 1Sam.31.13), natural caves or grottoes, or artificial tombs hewn out of the rock (Luke.7.12; John.11.30). In such a sepulcher, provided through the kindness of , the body of Jesus was laid. Flat stones were placed on the graves as markers to warn passers-by that they should not contract ceremonial defilement by unwittingly trespassing. These stones were whitewashed annually in the month of Adar. This was the underlying figure of speech behind Jesus’ stinging rebuke of the Pharisees, “You are like whitewashed tombs” (Matt.23.27). Some traces of the idea of tombs as the dwelling places of demons were still extant in the days of Christ (Matt.8.28).
In contrast with the Greeks and Romans whose custom it was to cremate the dead, with the Jews it was a matter of piety, as Tacitus says (Hist. V. 5), “to bury rather than to burn dead bodies.” Embalming was not done in Israel, although corpses were often anointed with spices; also coffins were not used. Among ancient Jews graves were simply dug in the earth, as they are in modern times. However, usually the dead were placed in a family tomb, either a natural cave or in a cave hewn out of rock on a hillside. In the cave there were shelves on which the bodies were laid. The entrance was closed with a large circular stone set up on its edge. Once a year the entrance to the tomb was whitewashed. Ordinary graves were marked by a heap of crude stones, but often pillars were set up as memorials to the dead. The graves of the prophets and holy persons were carefully maintained. In NT times, the place of burial was uniformly outside the city or village; only kings and prophets were allowed to be buried within the city. The lack of proper burial was regarded in ancient times as a great indignity or judgment of God—one of the worst calamities that could befall a person. See Burial.
R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 56-61.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)