Mourn, Mourning

MOURN, MOURNING. The ancient Hebrews placed a much greater emphasis on external symbolic acts than do modern Western people; people in the East today still carry on this respect for symbolic actions. Ceremonies for expressing grief at the death of a relative or on any unhappy occasion are referred to frequently in the Bible. One reared in the modern West must be careful not to view these public expressions as hypocritical; they were a natural valid manifestation of grief in that culture.

The OT contains warnings against pagan mourning rites (Lev.19.27-Lev.19.28; Deut.14.1-Deut.14.2). Israelite priests were not allowed to take part in any mourning or other funeral ceremonies (Lev.21.1-Lev.21.4, Lev.21.10-Lev.21.11).

When bad news was received or when sudden calamity came, it was customary to tear the clothes (2Sam.1.2) and to sprinkle earth or ashes on the head (Josh.7.6). Hair cloth (“sackcloth”) was adopted as clothing in times of grief (Isa.22.12). We read of covering the head in mourning (Jer.14.3), and also the lower part of the face (Ezek.24.17, Ezek.24.22). Among those who habitually wore some covering on the head it was a sign of mourning to let the hair go loose (Lev.10.6), which normally (like that of a Greek Orthodox priest in the Near East) would be coiled up.

A death in the household set in motion an elaborate ceremony of mourning that lasted a week or more. The members of the family and their friends gathered around the corpse and indulged in lamentations bordering on hysteria. The rites mentioned above were observed, but in a more abandoned form than for other mourning. During the last century, W. M. Thomson saw a ceremony of mourning carried out by the Arabs of Palestine. He described the three concentric circles of mourners, slowly marching, clapping their hands, and chanting a funeral dirge. At times they stopped and, flinging their arms and handkerchiefs about in wild frenzy, screamed and wailed like maniacs.

Professional mourners were often called in for a funeral (Jer.9.17-Jer.9.22; Amos.5.16; Matt.9.23). In the earliest times these were probably to protect the living from the spirits of the departed, who were greatly feared. By Bible times, however, the mourning women served merely as another manifestation of grief for the departed.