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Coffins and Sarcophagi

When did Jews begin the practice of burying the dead in individual sarcophagi?

Sarcophagus fragment
Sarcophagus fragment

Q. When did Jews begin the practice of burying the dead in individual sarcophagi?

A. Primary burials—laying a corpse to rest immediately after death—in freestanding burial containers such as sarcophagi or coffins were known throughout the Roman period (63 B.C.E. to 363 C.E.) but became increasingly popular among Jews in the middle to late Roman era.

The stone containers, or sarcophagi, used for the primary burial of one body were often richly ornamented and tend to be found in the tombs of the wealthy or upper classes. Early Roman sarcophagi typically feature geometric and floral friezes carved into raised panels on their fronts. The sarcophagus of Queen Helene of Adiabene, from the so-called Tomb of the Kings, is a good example. Late Roman sarcophagi, by contrast, such as those found in the catacombs at Beth-She’arim, frequently feature pictorial representations of birds and animals and mythological figures—evidence of a high degree of accommodation to Romanization in that they involve “graven images” typically found on pagan sarcophagi.

Coffins, like sarcophagi, were freestanding portable containers for the burial of one body, but they were made from lead or wood rather than stone. (The Greek word sarcophagus literally translates as “flesh eating.”) Wooden coffins, artfully constructed and ornamented, were found in the early Roman Jewish necropolis at Jericho. Because of their easily degraded material, wooden burial containers are evident usually only by the metal nails and hinges they leave behind.  

Such individual graves, a departure from the general pattern of group burial of extended kin groups, are also occasionally found in first century Palestine. At Qumran and Beit Safafa, for example, archaeologists have uncovered individual graves from the early Roman period made up of a trench that is large enough to hold a single body with a niche at the bottom for deposition of the body. Often the niche was covered with stone slabs and then filled with dirt. Since the cemetery at Qumran is entirely made up of individual trench graves, scholars speculate that this type of burial might have been influenced by beliefs and practices of the Qumran sect.

  • 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.