What were the Ancient Jewish Burial Customs?

What were the Ancient Jewish Burial Customs?

The burial traditions of many ancient Jewish burial customs are still very much in play today. Various important rituals that were carried out thousands of years ago still have a relevant place in the 21st century.

Even with the natural evolution and relaxation of certain regulations surrounding Jewish end-of-life services, this etiquette is usually strictly followed no matter how someone chooses to celebrate their passing from this life.

Ancient Jewish Burial Customs: from Biblical times to today

  • Ancient Jewish burial customs in the Bible
  • Post-Biblical ancient Jewish burial customs

Ancient Jewish burial customs in the Bible

Many of today’s burial practices stem from Bible references surrounding Abraham, who purchased a cave as a tomb for his family. From Genesis onwards, there are many accounts of the end of a man’s life and his burial. The text also leads to the belief that burials were carried out quickly, as no embalming took place.

There are multiple mentions of tombs, with many Hebrew phrases being synonymous with dying. These include, “to lie with my fathers’ and “to be gathered with one’s kin”.

Post-Biblical ancient Jewish burial customs

One of the most important burial customs is a prompt burial service—often within 24 hours of death. Jewish tradition believes that, while the majority of the arrangements fall to the family, there’s also an obligation on the whole community. Much importance is also placed on escorting the deceased to their final resting place.

Other vital aspects that are still practiced today include:

  • The guarding of the body during the pre-burial period.
  • The recital of Psalms at the home of the deceased in the hours leading up to the funeral service.
  • Various chants that are spoken during these hours.
  • Mourners throw grass/earth onto the coffin once it’s lowered into the grave. While they will wash their hands afterward, it’s traditional not to dry them.

These are just some of the traditions that are still evident in today’s burial customs.

Ancient Jewish Burial Customs in Today’s Landscape

  • Across the millennia: today’s Jewish burial customs

Across the millennia: today’s Jewish burial customs

Of course, traditions evolve over time. Some of the ancient Jewish burial customs have been removed, both for practical and financial reasons. These include:

  • Having torchbearers, musicians, and professional barefoot mourners in the funeral procession.
  • Dressing the deceased in opulent clothing.
  • Burying a key and book of accounts with a childless man.
  • Making food offerings to the dead.
  • Burying the person with their personal effects.
  • Placing lamps in the grave.
  • Burying an ink and pen in the grave of a deceased bridegroom.

A Jewish burial today will follow many of the ancient traditions. These include the period of mourning and elements, such as closing the person’s eyes and mouth, as well as straightening their limbs. 

However—and especially in the Reform denomination—many new traditions are being formed, such as those surrounding the once-taboo practice of cremation. While this is still an evolving process, it’s now becoming far easier for those who wish for themselves or a loved one to be cremated, while remaining true to the main traditions of a Jewish end-of-life service.

Burial or Cremation: Contact the Jewish Cremation Society for Info on Modern End-of-Life Ceremonies

Today’s funeral services range from truly traditional to modern cremation services. Even with the latter, it’s important that ancient rituals are followed. The Jewish Cremation Society exists to help navigate what can be an evocative subject, ensuring that the vital ancient burial traditions are followed, no matter how the body ends its earthly journey.

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