Ancient Burial Customs

Acts 8:2 "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him."

And devout men carried Stephen to his "burial"

Burial Customs in the Ancient Near East

Burial customs were very different in ancient times than they are today. In the ancient eastern cultures, including israel, burial was always something which was to be done in haste, because of how rapidly the body decomposes. In Israel, there was an immediate defilement with any contact with a dead body. They would bury the dead usually within a few hours, but rarely overnight.

The closest relative would close the eyes of the dead and after the announcement the lamentation would begin with wailing and bitter weeping. It was customary to have professional mourners present. Even the poorest family should hire at least one mourner.

The procession was not even quiet, with everyone beating their breasts and tearing their clothes, along with the mourners, and the singers, and the musical instruments, usually the flute. The bier or flat board carrying the body went first while the musicians would play at the rear of the procession. This may shed light on the situation when Jesus raised the young man from the dead:

Luke 7:11-16 11 Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. 12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then He came and touched the coffin (bier), and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." 15 So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. 16 Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people."

Since the burial was so urgent there was nothing elaborate. Little ceremony and much haste. The dead person was usually dressed in the most common clothes that they had been most often seen wearing.

It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to control the odors. The wealthier families could afford the more costly and weightier perfumes. The hands and feet were wrapped with linen cloths (grave-bands), and the face and head were covered with a small cloth and bound. It was loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the body. The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm.

The Greeks and Cremation

With the Greeks it was customary to cremate the dead, but not with the Jews. Tacitus (Hist. v. 5) said, 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." There are instances of burning bodies in the OT but usually it referred to that of an emergency or cleansing the camp from defilement.

The body was brought to a grave in early times, where the bier (flat board or stretcher) was removed and the body was let down into the ground, and then covered with a heap of stones to preserve it from wild animals. The grave was usually a shallow hole dug in the earth. In later times it was customary for each family to have a family tomb. The tomb or "sepulcher" was usually a natural cave or was hewn from the rock on a hillside with niches for the bodies to be placed. The family was not to sell their ancestral tomb if at all possible.

Some of the tombs were carved below ground level and had steps leading down. The tomb was usually sealed with a large circular stone, standing on its edge, and rolled into place in a groove cut for it. There was usually a strap or a seal which would indicate if the tomb had been disturbed.

If the family was wealthy the entrance stone was usually carved elaborately with pictures, names, and usually words of comfort. Greeks and Romans often carved pillars around the entrance.

It was customary for visitors to come on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after the burial for mourning, with their heads covered, faces black with dirt and ash, and in poor clothing, sometimes torn and rent, and they would sing a dirge and wail. In many cultures there was much violence done to their own bodies to show their grief, though the Bible forbade the mourners from cutting themselves. Some shaved their heads, fasted, and meditated in total silence.

Whitewashed Tombs and Touching Dead Bodies

It was ceremonially unclean for a Jew to touch a tomb. This is why they were whitewashed with lime, so they could be easily seen and not accidently touched. The Lord had commanded them in the Law not to "touch" a dead body because the blood was not alive, and the life of the flesh is in the blood (Lev 17:11). Blood was set apart for sacrifice, and they could have nothing else to do with it.

Mark 16:3-6 3 And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away-- for it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.

Bibliography on Ancient Customs

The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised by Robins, 272 Pages, Pub. 2008