By: Kaufmann Kohler
Placing the corpse in the earth or in caves of the rock, the chief modes adhered to by the Jewish people of disposing of the dead (Gen. xxiii. 19, xxv. 9, xxxv. 8, xlix. 29 et seq.; Deut. xxxiv. 6; Josh. xxiv. 30; Judges viii. 32; I Sam. xxv. 1, and elsewhere). The burning of the bodies of Saul and his sons was exceptional, and is explained in different ways (see I Sam. xxxi. 12, and the commentaries; also Schwally, "Das Leben nach dem Tode," p. 48); the same is the case with the allusion to burning in Amos vi. 10 (see commentaries, and Schwally, l.c.). The burning of the body so that even the bones were consumed was considered a disgrace (Amos ii. 1); and was inflicted as a punishment (Josh. vii. 25. Compare Tacitus, "Hist." v. 5: "They [the Jews] bury rather than burn their dead." See, also, Cremation.
To be denied burial was the most humiliating indignity that could be offered to the deceased, for it meant "to become food for beasts of prey" (Deut. xxviii. 26; I Kings xiii. 22, xiv. 11, xxi. 24; II Kings ix. 34-37; Jer. vii. 33; viii. 1, 2; ix. 21 ; xiv. 16; Ezek. xxix. 5; Ps. lxxix. 2, 3).
The law, therefore, requires even the criminal to be buried who has been put to death (Deut. xxi. 23). So, too, the slain enemy was buried (I Kings xi. 15; Ezek. xxxix. 15), not merely because the dead body defiled the land, but from a feeling of compassion, as is seen in the case of Rizpah (II Sam. xxi. 10; compare Josephus, "B. J." iv. 5, § 2).
While it was incumbent upon the relatives to bury their dead (Gen. xxiii. 3, xxv. 9, 1. 7; I Macc. ii. 70; Tobit vi. 15, xiv. 11), it was regarded as one of the laws of humanity "not to let any one lie unburied" (Josephus, "Contra Ap." ii. 29  ; Philo, "Hypothetica," ed. Mangey, ii. 629; Bernays, "Gesammelte Schriften," i. 277 et seq., who shows this to have been also an old Athenian law of Buzyges). The Rabbis call it ("an obligation to the dead claiming the service of the finder") (Massek. Sem. iv. 29; Sifra, Emor, Introduction; Sifre, Num. 26; Meg. 3b; Naz. 43b, 47b, and elsewhere). Tobit devoted himself entirely to the task of burying the unclaimed bodies of the slain (Tobit i. 17, ii. 7). According to Josephus, "B. J." iii. 8, § 5, a suicide was not buried before sunset; but Ahithophel, who committed suicide, was placed in his grave in the usual manner (II Sam. xvii. 23; see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 345, and "Sifte Kohen," thereon; see Suicide).Object of Burial.
In Sanh. 46b the law of burial is derived from Deut. xxi. 23, "Thou shalt bury him on that day," which is construed as a law affecting all men. Still in the Talmudic passage the question is discussed whether burial is to prevent disgrace of the body, or is a means of atonement for the soul for sins committed during lifetime—that is to say, a means of reconciliation of the shade, which finds no rest before being united with the body under the earth (see Schwally, l.c. pp. 52, 53). The process of decay in the grave was believed to be painful to the body, and therefore to be the means of atonement (compare Ber. 18b; Tosef., Sanh. 46b; Sanh. 47b). Atoning power of the ground per se (Ket. 111a) was attributed to Palestine exclusively (compare Tosef., Sanh. 46b; Sanh. 47b). This view concerning the atoning effect of the decaying process induced some to bring the body into close contact with the earth by either having the coffin perforated or by dispensing with the coffin altogether (Yer. Kil. vii. 32b, top; R. Nissim to Sanh. 46b; Ṭur, Yoreh De'ah, 362). Earth of the Holy Land, as based upon Deut. xxxii. 43, = "the earth shall atone for his people," is therefore often put under the body in the coffin to accelerate the dissolution and the ceasing of the pain (see Isserles to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 363, 1), if not on account of the Resurrection (see Yer. Kil. ix. 32c).
According to Pirḳe R. El. xxi., Adam and Eve learned the art of burial from a raven whom they saw bury one of its kin in the sand (Tan., Bereshit, 10, has "two clean birds" instead; Gen. R. xxii., "clean birds and beasts buried Abel," is probably incorrect; see Abel).Time of Burial.
Although the law in Deut. xxi. 23 refers only to the culprit exposed on the gallows, the rabbinical interpretation derives from it that "no corpse is to remain unburied overnight" (Sanh. vi. 4, 46a, b; Maimonides, "Abel," iv. 8; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 357, 1). With reference to Num. xx. 1, it is even urged that burial should follow death closely (M. Ḳ. 28a; compare Acts v. 6-10; and see Tobler, "Denkblätter aus Jerusalem," 1853, p. 325, as to the present usage: "The burial takes place within as few hours after death as possible"). "To keep the dead overnight was not permitted in the city of Jerusalem" (Tosef., Neg. vi. 2; B. Ḳ. 82b; Ab. R. N. xxxv.). Whether this was due to the climate, which causes decomposition to ensue rapidly—compare Abraham's words: "Let me bury my dead out of my sight" (Gen. xxiii. 4)—or to the defiling nature of the corpse (Num. xix. 11-14), the generally accepted view was that the acceleration of the burial was a praiseworthy act unless preparations for the honor of the dead made delay desirable (M. Ḳ. 22a; Maimonides and Yoreh De'ah, l.c.).Early Burials.
The tomb, however, was not immediately closed over the dead. During the first three days it was customary for the relatives to visit the grave to see whether the dead had come to life again (Massek. Sem. viii.; see Perles, "Leichenfeierlichkeiten," p. 10, and Brüll, "Jahrb." i. 51). In the course of time the Mishnaic law was insisted upon, notwithstanding the altered conditions, and quick burials involved the danger of entombing persons alive. When, therefore, in 1772, the Mecklenburg government, in prohibiting such burials and insisting that three days should intervene between death and interment, provoked great opposition on the part of the rabbis, who considered it an infringement upon Jewish law and custom, Moses Mendelssohn, who was asked to intercede, justified the governmental measure, declaring the Jewish custom to be in conflict with the ancient view and practise (see Kayserling, "Moses Mendelssohn," 1862, pp. 276 et seq., and the "Meassef" of the year 1772). This view has been adopted by all modern rabbinical authorities, though the Eastern Jews still adhere to the old custom with its abuses (see Altschul, "Kritisches Sendschreiben über das Bisherige Verfahren mit den Sterbenden," 1846, and David Einhorn, "Ueber die Nothwendigkeit der Einrichtung von Leichenhäusern," in "Sinai," 1862, pp. 213 et seq., 243).Spices and Plants at the Burial.
Embalming, practised in Egypt (Gen. 1. 2, 26) and in the case of Aristobulus in Rome (Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 7, § 4), was unknown, or at least exceedingly rare, in Judea. But—undoubtedly with the view of removing the odor—spices were put on the coffin or otherwise used at funerals (Ber. viii. 6; John xii. 7, xix. 39), and myrtles and aloes (in liquid state) were carried in the procession (Beẓah 6a; John xix. 39). In honor of dead kings "sweet odors and diverse kinds of spices" were burned (Jer. xxxiv. 5; II Chron. xvi. 14, xxi. 19), together with the bier and the armor (see 'Ab. Zarah 11a), or carried along in the procession (Josephus, "Ant." xv. 3, § 4; xvii. 83; idem, "B. J." i. 33, § 9). Onkelos (Aquila), the proselyte, burned 80 manehs of balsam in honor of R. Gamaliel the Elder (Sem. viii.; 'Ab. Zarah 11a). Later practise added an infusion of the spices to the water with which the dead was washed (see Ṭaharah).
As soon as the last breath was drawn, the eyes of the dead were closed by the oldest or the most distinguished son or next relative (Gen. xlvi. 4), the mouth was shut, and kept in position by a band on the cheek-bones, and the body placed upon sand or salt on the floor to retard decomposition, metal or glass being put upon the navel to prevent swelling. Then the body was washed and anointed with aromatic unguents, and wrapped in linen clothes (Shab. xxiii. 5; Sem. i. 2, 3; Acts ix. 37; John xi. 44, xii. 7, xix. 39 et seq., xx. 6 et seq.; Matt. xxvii. 59; Mark xv. 46 et seq.; Luke xxiii. 53 et seq.; Testament of Abraham, xx.).
In Biblical times persons, especially of high rank, were arrayed at burial in the garments, ornaments, and weapons which they had worn in life (I Sam. xxviii. 14; Isa. xiv. 11; Ezek. xxxii. 27; compare Josephus, "Ant." xv. 3, § 4; xvii. 8, § 3; "B. J." i. 33, § 9; and "Ant." xiii. 8, § 4; xvi. 7, § 1). To be buried without garments was considered a disgrace (Shab. 14a; compare Spiegel, "Avesta," ii., Introduction, p. xli.). As a token of honor, it was customary to cast the most costly garments and ornaments upon the bier of a dear relative or friend, and as such objects could no longer be used for other purposes, the Rabbis deprecated such practise (Sem. ix.; Sanh. 48a et seq.). In fact, since funeral expenses became common extravagances and an object of alarm to the relatives, R. Gamaliel II. set the example by the order he gave for his own funeral, and thus introduced the custom of burying the dead in simple linen garments (Ket. 8b; M. Ḳ. 27b). In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Judah enjoins his sons "not to bury him in costly garments nor to cut open his body" (for embalming), as is done to kings (Judah xxvi.; compare Josephus, "Contra Ap." ii. 27).Simplicity of Funerals.
In R. Papa's time cheap clothes became the rule (Ket. 8b). White garments, which were the robes of state (Yer. R. H. i. 57b; Eccl. ix. 8), were at all times preferred. R. Jannai, however—some versions have "R. Johanan"—wished to be buried in colored garments, saying: "Not in black, lest I appear as a mourner among the righteous who are clad in white in paradise, nor in white, lest I be clad in festal garments when I should bewail my sad lot" (Yer. Kil. ix. 32b; Shab. 114a; Gen. R. xcvi., and elsewhere). R. Jeremiah said (Yer. Kil. l.c.; Gen. R. c.): "Dress me in white garments with sleeves, put on my slippers, and place a cane in my hand and my sandals by my feet, and set me by the high road so that I may be ready when the Resurrection call comes." The use of the shroud, or Sargenes, is a later custom. Objects used or favored by the dead, such as a writing-tablet, a pen or inkstand, a key or bracelet, were often put into the coffin or grave (Sem. viii.). Formerly the face was covered only in case of disfigurement; in course of time, when long privation caused the poor to look disfigured and the rich only seemed to enjoy the privilege of having their faces uncovered, it became the rule to cover the faces of all; the bridegroom alone, whose death appealed to universal sympathy, being excepted (Sem. l.c.; M. Ḳ. 27a). Brides had their hair loosened (Sem. l.c.). As a rule, the hair was cut (M. Ḳ. 8b). The body was placed in the coffin face upward, the hands folded across the breast, and the feet stretched out; a curved or bent-over position was deprecated (Yer. Naz. ix. 57d; Bab. Naz. 65a; B. B. 74a, 101a, b; Ṭur, Yoreh De'ah, 362).Coffins or Biers.
Coffins, though used in Egypt (Gen. 1. 26), were not in general use in Biblical times; in most cases the dead were carried out to the burial-place upon a bed or bier ("miṭṭah," II Sam. iii. 31; Ber. iii. 1; Josephus, "Ant." xvii. 8, § 3, κλίυη; compare II Kings xiii. 21, and the story of the sham funeral of Johanan ben Zakkai, Giṭ. 56a). Occasionally coffins were used, either of wood or of stone (M. Ḳ. 8b; Yer. M. Ḳ. i. 80d), those of wood suggestive of the tree which brought death to man (Gen. R. xix.); cedarwood, "which does not decay," being preferred (Test. Patr., Simeon, 8; compare Levi, 19; Zebulon, 10). In France it became customary to use for the coffin-boards the table upon which food for the poor had been served (Baḥya b. Asher, commentary to Ex. xxv.).
At first the bier used for the rich was more elaborate than that used for the poor; later, simplicity and equality became the rule (M. Ḳ. 27b).Funeral Procession.
The bearers, who carried the bier on their shoulders (hence their name, "kattafim" [shoulderers]), walked barefooted, one set of bearers changing with another from time to time to give as many as possible an opportunity to honor the dead (Ber. iii. 1; Yer. Naz. vii. 56a). In the case of a child under twelve months, the coffin was carried by the handles (Sem. iii. 2; M. Ḳ. 24b). The women went, as a rule, in front of the bier, the reason given (Yer. Sanh. ii. 20b; Gen. R. xvii.) being that "woman brought death upon the world"; in reality because the mourning women singing the dirge and beating the drum led the funeral procession, as they still do in the East (Jer. ix. 16; M. Ḳ. iii. 8-9; Kelim xv. 6; Schwarz, "Das Heilige Land," p. 342), though at times they follow the bier (Lane, "Customs of the Egyptians," ch. xxviii.).
Besides the relatives and friends (Gen. 1. 7), any stranger was also expected to follow when he saw the dead carried to the grave, lest it be said of him "the one who mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker" (Ber. 18a, after Prov. xvii. 5). A teacher of the Law was honored by having a scroll of the Law placed upon the bier, or carried alongside of it, and placed in the tomb (B. Ḳ. 17a).The Family Sepulcher.
The burial-place received its chief sanctity from the fact that it was the resting-place of the members of the family. To the ancient Hebrew, to die was "to be gathered unto his people" and "to lie with his fathers" (Gen. xlix. 29; Num. xxvii. 13; Judges ii. 10, and elsewhere); to be buried in the grave of his father and mother was his fondest wish (II Sam. xix. 38, xxi. 14; Tobit iv. 3-4, xiv. 10-12). Thus the cave of Makpelah became the family sepulcher of the Patriarchs (Gen. xxiii., xlix. 29-31). The kings were buried in a family sepulcher (II Kings xxi. 18, 26; xxiii. 30). These sepulchers were either dug in the ground in the neighborhood of the family dwelling (I Kingsii. 3-4; I Sam. xxv. 1, xxviii. 3) or hewn out of the rock, often during one's lifetime (Isa. xxii. 16; II Chron. xvi. 14; see also for the thirteenth century Isaac b. Sheshet, Responsa, No. 114, quoted by Perles, l.c. p. 29). In the one case, stone buildings in the shape of houses or cupolas, after Phenician custom called ("the soul or" "bird-house") ('Er. v. 1; Sheḳ. ii. 5), were erected over the graves; in the other case, either caves () (B. M. 85b; M. ḳ. 17a; Judith xvi. 23) were selected, or the rocks were so excavated as to furnish compartments or galleries with as many vaults ("kokim," ) at the three sides as the family required. Into these vaults the corpse could be horizontally moved, the stone rolled upon the entrance forming the cover or door, while the porch on the fourth side was large enough to afford room for the bier and the visitors (B. B. vi. 8; Yer. B. B. iii. 13d; Ket. 84a; M. Ḳ. 8b). While the kings claimed the privilege of being buried in the Holy City and so near the Temple as to provoke the protest of the prophet (Ezek. xliii. 7-9), the rule was that the burial-place should be at least fifty cubits distant from the city (B. B. ii. 9; Luke vii. 12); but it was often placed in a garden (John xix. 41), with flowers planted around (Ṭoh. iii. 7). In those old family sepulchers of Palestine the interment did not take place immediately, but the body was left in the sepulchral chamber for some time until it was reduced to a mere skeleton, and then the bones were collected anew, wrapped in linen clothes, tied closely together like mummies, and then solemnly interred (Yer. M. Ḳ. i. 80d; Sem. xii., xiii.).
To disturb the rest of the dead by removing the body or the bone-remnants from one place to another was considered a great wrong; but it was allowed for the benefit of the dead in the case of a transfer of the body to the family plot, or when the place of burial had become unsafe from desecration or elementary ruin (Sem. xiii.; Yer. M. Ḳ. ii. 81b; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 362, 1). See also
- Hastings, Dict. Bible, s.v. Burial;
- Biblical dictionaries of Winer, Riehmer, Hauck, respectively, s.v. Begräbniss;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. s.v. Beerdigung;
- Schwally, Das Leben nach dem Tode;
- Benzinger, Hebr, Archäologie, pp. 23, 163 et seq.;
- Nowack, Hebr. Archäologie, i. 32, 192 et seq.;
- Perles, Die Leichenfeierlichkeiten des Nachbiblischen Judenthums, reprint from Monatsschrift, 1860;
- L. Geiger, Zeit. für die Gesch. der Juden in Deutschland, iii. 211 et seq., iv. 315, v. 375;
- Bender, Beliefs, Rites, and Customs of the Jews Connected with Death, Burial, and Mourning, in Jewish Quarterly Review, 1894 and 1895;
- Wiesner, Die Leichenbestattung in Thalmudischer und Nachthalmudischer Zeit, in Ben Chananja, 1861, pp. 277-281, 405.