The Jews entombed, if possible, or else inferred, their dead; the rabbis alleging as a reason" Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19). Even enemies received burial (1 Kings 11:15). The law ordained the same treatment of the malefactor (Deuteronomy 21:23). Nothing but extreme profanity on the part of the deceased during life was deemed a warrant for disturbing their remains (2 Kings 23:16-17; Jeremiah 8:1-2). A cave was the usual tomb, as Israel abounds in caves. The funeral rites were much less elaborate than those of the Egyptians. Jacob and Joseph dying in Egypt were embalmed; the Egyptians, through lack of a better hope, endeavoring to avert or delay corruption. Kings and prophets alone were buried within the walls of towns. A strong family feeling led the Israelites to desire burial in the same tomb as their forefathers.
So Jacob (Genesis 49:29-32). The burial place of Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob, in the field of Machpelah (Genesis 23), bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite, and the field bought by Jacob from Shechem's father, Hamor, where Joseph's bones were buried (Joshua 24:32), were the only fixed possessions the patriarchs had in Canaan, and the sole purchases they made there. They felt their bodies belonged to the Lord. To be excluded from the family burying place, as Uzziah and Manasseh were, was deemed an indignity. 2 Chronicles 26:23; 2 Chronicles 33:20; compare 1 Kings 13:22-31, which shows it was a mark of great respect to one not of one's family to desire burial with him (compare Rth 1:17). The greatest indignity was to be denied burial (2 Kings 9:10; Isaiah 14:20; Jeremiah 22:18-19; 2 Samuel 21:12-14).
David's magnanimity appears in his care to restore his enemy Saul's remains to the paternal tomb. To give a place in one's own sepulchre was a special honor; as the children of Heth offered Abraham, and as Jehoiada was buried among the kings (Genesis 23:6; 2 Chronicles 24:16). So Joseph of Arimathea could not have done a greater honor to our crucified Lord's body than giving it a place in his own new tomb, fulfilling the prophecy Isaiah 53:9 (John 19:31-42). A common tomb for all the kindred, with galleries, is not uncommon in the East. Burning was only practiced in peculiar circumstances, as in the case of Saul's and his sons' mutilated headless bodies, where regular burial was impossible and there was a possibility of the Philistines coming and mutilating them still more. However, the bones were not burned but buried (1 Samuel 31:11-13). Also in a plague, to prevent contagion (Amos 6:9-10).
Costly spices were wrapped up in the linen swathes round the corpse, and also were burnt at the funeral (2 Chronicles 16:14); so Nicodemus honored Jesus with 100 pounds weight of "myrrh and aloes." The rapidity of decomposition in the hot East, and the legal uncleanness of association with a dead body, caused immediate interment; as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5; Numbers 19:11-14). Hired mourners with shrill pipes increased the sound of wailings for the dead (Matthew 9:23; Jeremiah 9:17; 2 Chronicles 35:25). The body without any coffin was carried to burial on a bier (Luke 7:12). A napkin was bound round the head, and linen bandages wound round the body (John 11:44; John 19:40). The whole of the preparations are included in the Greek word entafiasmos which Jesus uses (Mark 14:8).
After burial the funeral feast followed (Jeremiah 16:6-8). Ezekiel 24:17, "Eat not the bread of men," i.e. the bread or viands, as well as "the cup of consolation," which men usually bring mourners in token of sympathy. The law (Leviticus 19:28) forbade cuttings in the flesh for the dead, usual among the pagan. Families often reduced their means by lavish expenditure in gifts at funerals, to which there may be reference in Deuteronomy 26:14. By the law also nothing ought to be carried into a mourning house (as being unclean) of that which was sanctified, as for instance tithes. Samuel was buried in his own house at Ramah; and the sepulchers of Judah's kings were in the city of David (2 Chronicles 16:14).
Fine ranges of tombs, said to be of the kings, judges, and prophets, still remain near Jerusalem; but these, many think, are the tomb of Helena, the widow of the king of Adiabene, who settled at Jerusalem and relieved poor Jews in the famine foretold by Agabus under Claudius Caesar. The "graves of the children of the people" were and are in the valley of Kedron or Jehoshaphat (2 Kings 23:6); and on the graves of them that had sacrificed to the idols and groves Josiah strawed the dust of their idols (2 Chronicles 34:4): "the graves of the common people" outside the city (Jeremiah 26:23). Tophet, the valley E. of the city, was once the haunt of Moloch worship, but was doomed to defilement by burials there (Jeremiah 7:32; Jeremiah 19:11).
"The potters' field," with its holes dug out for clay, afforded graves ready made "to bury strangers in." Tombs were often cut out of the living rock. One of the kings' tombs near Jerusalem has a large circular stone set on its edge. A deep recess is cut in the solid rock at the left of the door, into which the stone might be rolled aside, when the tomb was opened; when closed, the stone would be rolled back to its proper place. The disk is large enough, not only to cover the entrance, but also to fit into another recess at the right of the door, and thus completely shut it in. There is an incline to its proper place, so that to roll it back is much harder than to roll it into it. The women going to Jesus' tomb might well say," Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?" (Mark 16:3.)
Mary stooped to look in, because the door was low; the angel sat on the stone rolled aside into its recess, as the women drew near (Matthew 28:2; John 20:11; compare Isaiah 22:16; Luke 23:53). Demoniacs and outcasts would haunt such tombs for shelter, when open (Isaiah 60:4; Mark 5:5). Sepulchers used to be whitened, after the rains, before the Passover, each year, to guard against any defiling himself by touching them. This explains Jesus' comparison of hypocrites to "whited sepulchers" (Matthew 23:27). To repair the prophets' tombs was regarded as an act of great piety (Matthew 23:29).