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Burial Practices in First Century Palestine

Descriptions of death and burial practices in the New Testament are corroborated by archaeological evidence.

Catacombs of Saint Sebastian

The traditional Palestinian preference for prompt burial continued throughout the first century. In Mark 5:38, funeral preparations for Jairus’s daughter begin right away, and in John 11 Lazarus is buried on his day of death. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.6, a corpse should be kept unburied overnight only on rare occasions.

As soon as death was certain, the deceased’s eyes were closed; the corpse was washed, and then wrapped and bound. According to the third-century C.E. Jewish tractate Semahot, men could only prepare the corpse of a man, but women could prepare both men and women. Literary depictions often suggest that perfumes or ointments were used for this washing. The body was wrapped and bound in strips of cloth. John 11 has such preparations in view: Lazarus’s “hands and feet [were] bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” (John 11:44). Thus prepared, male relatives and friends would carry the corpse in a procession toward the place of interment, accompanied by friends, neighbors, and relatives. Such processions are described in the New Testament (Luke 7:12, for example) and in Josephus, who emphasizes the splendor of Herod’s funerary cortege (War I.671-3). Some Mishnaic texts suggest that processions occasionally halted in order to “make lamentation” for the dead (m. Meg. 4.3; m. B. Bath. 6.7, for example).

Jewish funeral processions made their way from the family home to the family tomb. Members of the immediate family placed the body in the tomb while friends and relatives waited outside. Personal effects of the deceased might be placed in the tomb alongside the body: archaeologists have found an inkwell, jewelry, combs, and sandals.

Some tombs include an area that appears to have been the setting for lamenting and eulogizing the deceased. Made up of either a circle of benches or a row (or rows) of seats, these “mourning enclosures” are usually situated in front of and around the entrance to the tomb. Some literary sources describe a ceremony in which friends and neighbors arranged themselves in rows in order to offer condolences to the bereaved in a kind of receiving line (m. Ber. 3.2; m. Meg. 4:3; m. Sanh. 2.1; Sem. 10.9). The ceremony of primary burial seems to have often included spoken words in appreciation for the dead and in sympathy for the bereaved.

After primary burial, the procession returned to the family home, where expressions of condolence continued. Rituals of death continued for several days thereafter. Literary sources, including John 11, agree that for the first seven days, the immediate family remained at home in mourning. If mourners left the house during this time, it was presumed that they would go to the tomb. In John 11, Mary leaves the family home, and neighbors and friends assume “she was going to the tomb to weep there” (John 11:31).

After seven days, most aspects of ordinary life resumed. The death of a parent was an exception: children mourned their parents for a full year, until the time of secondary burial. At that time, in a private ceremony, family members returned to the tomb, took the bones of the deceased from their resting place on a shelf or a niche, and placed them in a niche, pit, or ossuary. The ossuary, which might be marked with the name of the deceased, was then placed either on the shelf, on the floor, or in a niche. When a loculus niche became filled with ossuaries—and some loculi have been found to contain as many as five or six—it could be sealed with a stone slab.   

Archaeological evidence has been decisive in the interpretation of some New Testament texts about tombs, graves, death, and burial. In particular, the saying of Jesus in Matt 8:21-22 presupposes secondary burial: “‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (a parallel passage occurs at Luke 9:59-60). Luke 11:47-48’s “tombs of the prophets” most likely refers to the monumental Hellenistic tombs in the Kidron Valley. And the Lazarus narrative in John 11 accurately represents typical customs of mourning, tomb construction, and grave wrappings.

  • Byron R. McCane

    Byron R. McCane is the Albert C. Outler Professor of Religion at Wofford College where he is also chair of the religion department. He has been a field supervisor at excavations in Israel and Jordan.