The interment of the body of a deceased person was an act of considerable importance to people in the Biblical period. Thus, Abraham, the first person directly mentioned in the record as performing a burial, was willing to spend a fair sum of money in order to obtain a suitable place as a burial ground. (See PURCHASE.) The Hittites (sons of Heth), from whom the purchase was made, had their own ‘choice’ burial places. (Ge 23:3-20) The cave obtained by Abraham became a family burial site, receiving his wife’s body and, eventually, his own, and those of Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob. (Ge 25:9; 49:29-32) Jacob was seriously concerned that his body not be buried in Egypt but, rather, with his forefathers. (Ge 47:29-31) This necessitated the embalming of his body, which otherwise would have putrefied during the hot journey from Egypt to the cave of Machpelah. (Ge 50:1-3, 13) Joseph expressed a similar desire, and his body was likewise embalmed and placed in a coffin, awaiting the time of the Exodus for transferal. (Ge 50:24-26; Jos 24:32) This desire doubtless related to their sharing the same faith in God’s promises and was an expression of their conviction as to the eventual fulfillment of these.—Heb 11:13-22, 39.
Following the model of Abraham, family burial places seem to have been preferred. (2Sa 19:34-37) Gideon, Samson, and Asahel are each spoken of as being buried ‘in the burial place of his father.’ (Jg 8:32; 16:31; 2Sa 2:32) However, the frequent expression ‘to lie down, or be buried, with his forefathers’ does not necessarily imply a sharing of the same burial site, for this phrase is used concerning men who were clearly not buried in the same place as their forefathers. (Ge 15:15; De 31:16; 32:50; 1Ki 2:10; Ac 13:36) It must thus refer to their common entrance into Sheol (Hades), the common grave of mankind. Such common grave is called “the house of meeting for everyone living.”—Job 30:23.
The act of burying another’s body was viewed as an expression of loving-kindness, and the men of Jabesh-gilead risked their lives to effect such a burial for Saul and his sons. (1Sa 31:11-13; 2Sa 2:4-6) To be deprived of burial was considered calamitous (Jer 14:16) and is stated as being a divine means of expressing God’s repudiation of persons due to their wrong course. (Jer 8:1, 2; 9:22; 25:32, 33; Isa 14:19, 20; compare Re 11:7-9.) The body was thereby exposed to be consumed as food by animals and carrion-eating birds. (Ps 79:1-3; Jer 16:4) The pathetic picture of Rizpah’s refusing to abandon her dead sons’ bodies, perhaps for months, until they were finally accorded a burial vividly portrays the importance attached to the matter.—2Sa 21:9-14.
Jehovah’s law through Moses even provided for burial of criminals. (De 21:23; compare Jos 8:29.) Ahithophel, though a suicide, received burial. (2Sa 17:23) At the same time that Solomon ordered Joab’s execution, he also gave instructions for his burial. (1Ki 2:31) Jehu intended to give wicked Jezebel a burial out of consideration for her being “the daughter of a king,” but he was overruled by the fulfillment of Jehovah’s prophecy that she should become “as manure upon the face of the field.”—2Ki 9:10, 34-37; compare 2Ch 22:8, 9.
Aside from the cases of Jacob and Joseph, burial was evidently effected by the Israelites on the same day of the death. Early interment was necessary because of rapid decomposition in the usually warm climate of Bible lands. Lying Ananias was buried within about three hours of his death. (Ac 5:5-10) Additionally, under the Mosaic Law the dead body was viewed as making those touching it unclean for a seven-day period. Whereas death’s being the result of sin and imperfection was doubtless the underlying basis for this judicial decision, it also worked for the prevention of the spread of disease and benefited its observers hygienically. Those failing to observe the purifying procedure prescribed in the Law were subject to the death penalty. (Nu 19:11-20; compare De 21:22, 23.) Josiah used the bones of idol worshipers to make their religious altars unfit for worship, and he also desecrated their burial places.—2Ki 23:14-16; 2Ch 34:4, 5.
In view of the Biblical attitude toward dead bodies, it is evident that the veneration of the bodies of prominent servants of God was not practiced or countenanced. Moses’ body was buried by God himself in an unknown site, and this also made impossible any future pilgrimages to his burial place.—De 34:5, 6; compare Jude 9.
The places selected for burial purposes were varied. Burial in the soil, a common method in the West, though certainly practiced, was not as highly favored in the Middle East. Rebekah’s nursing woman Deborah and also, initially at least, King Saul and his sons were buried under large trees. (Ge 35:8; 1Ch 10:12) But natural caves or artificial ones excavated in the soft limestone rock so common in Palestine seem to have been preferred, as in Abraham’s case. The burial place was often personally prepared well in advance. (Ge 50:5; Isa 22:16; 2Ch 16:14) The site might be near the person’s house, perhaps in a garden (1Sa 25:1; 1Ki 2:34; 2Ki 21:25, 26); the expression “at his house” does not mean within the building, as is shown by a comparison of 2 Chronicles 33:20 and 2 Kings 21:18.
Archaeological investigations give an idea of the type of burial places used in ancient times. Aside from simple earthen graves, in Palestine these could be vaults or chambers cut in the rock, often on hillsides. Elevated places seem to have been preferred. (Jos 24:33; 2Ki 23:16; 2Ch 32:33; Isa 22:16) The chamber might be for a single burial, the body being laid in an excavated place in the floor. Or it might be arranged for multiple burials, with long slots, large enough to accommodate one body each, cut into the sides of the chamber at right angles to the walls. The narrow opening through which the body was inserted was then covered with a stone cut to fit. In other cases a benchlike niche, or shelf, was cut into the rear and side walls (Mr 16:5), or there might be a double row of such shelves, thus increasing the capacity of the burial place. The tomb might even consist of more than one chamber, although the single chamber seems to have been the common type among the Jews. Where the body lay exposed on a shelf, it was, of course, necessary to seal off the entrance against the depredations of wild animals. Thus, the main entrance to the chamber was closed off with a large stone, at times hinged as a door, and occasionally with a circular one set in a track and rolled in front of the entrance. Such circular stones might weigh as much as a ton or more.—Mt 27:60; Mr 16:3, 4.
Simplicity marks the earlier Jewish burial places. They thus contrasted greatly with the pagan tombs, which often had paintings on the walls and other ornamentation. Although Jacob erected a pillar over Rachel’s grave, perhaps a single stone (Ge 35:20), this seems to have been simply a marker, not a monument. (1Sa 10:2) A “gravestone” is also mentioned at 2 Kings 23:17 as marking a burial spot. Jesus referred to tombs “not in evidence, so that men walk upon them and do not know it.” (Lu 11:44) Because there was ceremonial defilement associated with the dead, burial places of the Jewish people were frequently whitewashed, thereby advising the passersby of their presence. (Mt 23:27) This whitewashing is said to have been done annually, prior to the Passover.—The Mishnah, Shekalim 1:1.
Following the death of an individual, the body was generally washed (Ac 9:37) and anointed with aromatic oils and ointments, which, if considered a type of embalming, was not the kind done by the ancient Egyptians. (Compare Mr 14:3-8; Joh 12:3, 7.) The body was then wrapped in cloth, generally linen. (Mt 27:59; Joh 11:44) Spices such as myrrh and aloes were customarily included in with such bandages (Joh 19:39, 40), or the body might be laid in oil and ointment, as was done with King Asa’s body. (2Ch 16:14) The great “funeral burning” mentioned in this latter case was evidently a burning of such spices, giving off an aromatic incense. The head might be covered by a separate cloth.—Joh 20:7.
The women who went to Jesus’ tomb on the third day to grease his body with spices may have done so because of the hurried circumstances under which Jesus was buried and hence with the purpose of doing a more complete work as a means of preserving the body for a longer period.—Mr 16:1; Lu 23:55, 56.
The body was likely carried to the burial site on a bier, or funeral litter, possibly made of wickerwork, and a considerable procession might accompany it, perhaps including musicians playing mournful music. (Lu 7:12-14; Mt 9:23) Amid weeping, some expression concerning the deceased might be made at the gravesite.—2Sa 3:31-34; 2Ch 35:23-25.
In course of time cemeteries came into existence as the number of dead multiplied. These were customarily outside the city walls. But Judean kings were buried in “the City of David,” and those of Israel were buried in the capital city of the northern kingdom. (1Sa 25:1; 1Ki 22:37; 2Ch 9:31; 24:15, 16) In the book Digging Up Biblical History (1931, Vol. II, p. 186), J. G. Duncan writes: “As a rule the Hebrews, though they sometimes buried within the city walls, excavated their rock-tombs on a hill-slope near to their city. The presence of rock-tombs on one hill-slope is often a sure indication that the hill opposite or near had had a settlement on it, and, on the other hand, the absence of any indication of burials near a site is a sure proof that that site had not been occupied.” The cliffs surrounding Jerusalem abound with burial places. (Compare Isa 22:16.) The reference to “the graveyard of the sons of the people” (“the burial place of the common people,” RS) in the Valley of Kidron is believed to refer to a graveyard for the poorer class. (Jer 26:23; 2Ki 23:6) Mention is also made of “the potter’s field” for the burial of strangers.—Mt 27:7; see AKELDAMA.
Cremation, widely practiced by the later Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, was rare among the Jews. The corpses of Saul and his sons were burned; the bones, however, were buried.—1Sa 31:8-13; note also Am 6:9, 10.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the words qeʹver (“burial place”; Ge 23:4) and qevu·rahʹ (“grave”; Ge 35:20) are distinct in meaning from the Hebrew sheʼohlʹ, which refers, not to an individual grave or graves, but to the common grave of mankind, gravedom. Likewise, in the Christian Greek Scriptures the Greek word taʹphos (“grave”; Mt 27:61) and the words mneʹma (“tomb”; Mr 15:46) and mne·meiʹon (“memorial tomb”; Lu 23:55) are distinct from the word haiʹdes, the Greek equivalent of sheʼohlʹ.—See HADES; MEMORIAL TOMB; SHEOL.
Burial Places of the Kings or of David. On Pentecost, Peter stated: “David . . . both deceased and was buried and his tomb is among us to this day.” (Ac 2:29) This indicates that the burial place of King David was still in existence as of the year 33 C.E.
First Kings 2:10 tells us that David was buried in “the City of David,” and apparently this became the customary burial place of later kings of Judah. Twelve of the 20 kings following David are directly mentioned as being buried in the City of David, though not all of these were placed in “the burial places of the kings”—Jehoram, Joash (Jehoash), and Ahaz being specifically mentioned as not buried there. (2Ch 21:16, 20; 24:24, 25; 28:27) Instead of being one common tomb of many chambers, “the burial places of the kings” may have constituted a particular area within the City of David where the memorial tombs of the kings were located. King Asa was buried in a “grand burial place that he had excavated for himself in the City of David” (2Ch 16:14), and Hezekiah is spoken of as being buried “in the ascent to the burial places of the sons of David.” (2Ch 32:33) Leprous King Uzziah was buried “with his forefathers, but in the burial field that belonged to the kings, for they said: ‘He is a leper.’” This would seem to indicate the placement of his diseased body in the ground rather than in a tomb hewed out of rock.—2Ch 26:23.
Of the other kings of Judah, Manasseh and Amon were evidently buried in a different location, in “the garden of Uzza.” (2Ki 21:18, 23, 26) The statement that Amon’s son, faithful King Josiah, was buried in “the graveyard of his forefathers” may refer either to the royal tombs in the City of David or to the burial places of Manasseh and Amon. (2Ch 35:23, 24) Three kings died in exile: Jehoahaz (in Egypt), Jehoiachin and Zedekiah (in Babylon). (2Ki 23:34; 25:7, 27-30) Jehoiakim received “the burial of a he-ass,” “thrown out to the heat by day and to the frost by night” in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.—Jer 22:18, 19; 36:30.
Righteous High Priest Jehoiada was accorded the honor of a burial in “the City of David along with the kings,” the only person not of the royal line mentioned as having received such distinction.—2Ch 24:15, 16.
The location of these royal burial places has not been determined. On the basis of the reference to “the Burial Places of David” at Nehemiah 3:16 and the mention of “the ascent to the burial places of the sons of David” at 2 Chronicles 32:33, some believe the likely location to have been on the SE hill of the city near the Kidron Valley. A number of what appear to be ancient rock-cut tombs have been found in this area, their entrances being in the form of sunken rectangular shafts. However, no positive identification can be made; any effort at identification was complicated not only by the destruction of the city in the year 70 C.E. and again in 135 C.E. but also by the use of the southern part of the city by the Romans as a stone quarry. Hence, the above-mentioned tombs are in a greatly deteriorated state.
The mausoleum of Queen Helena of Adiabene, located in the N of the modern city of Jerusalem, has acquired the misleading name of the “Tombs of the Kings.” It was actually built in the first century C.E. and should not be confused with the royal burial grounds mentioned in the Bible account.
“The Carcasses of Their Kings.” At Ezekiel 43:7-9 Jehovah condemned the house of Israel and their kings for defiling his holy name by “their fornication and by the carcasses of their kings at their death” and said, “Now let them remove their fornication and the carcasses of their kings far from me, and I shall certainly reside in the midst of them to time indefinite.” Some commentators have taken this to indicate that the Jews were guilty of having made the burial places of certain kings near the temple area. In verse 7, about 20 Hebrew manuscripts and editions and the Targums contain the phrase “at their death,” while the Masoretic text reads, instead, “their high places,” and the Greek Septuagint says “in the midst of them.”
Even if the phrase “at their death” is the correct reading here, this seems to be no solid basis for believing that any of the kings of Judah were buried near the temple grounds. Since the dead body of a person was unclean according to the Law, to bury anyone near the temple would be an open affront to God, and such an obvious and gross violation of the temple’s sanctity is not even hinted at in the histories of the kings. Those kings not accorded a burial in “the burial places of the kings” or “of the sons of David” are not likely to have been given a more exalted place of burial, such as near the temple but, rather, a less prominent and less honorable place.
A closer consideration of Ezekiel 43:7-9 indicates that the discussion involved idolatry and that, even as the “fornication” is primarily figurative, so too “the carcasses of their kings” represent the dead idols that the house of Israel and their rulers had worshiped. Thus, at Leviticus 26:30 Jehovah warned the Israelites that their disobedience would cause him to “annihilate your sacred high places and cut off your incense stands and lay your own carcasses upon the carcasses of your dungy idols.” (Compare Jer 16:18; Eze 6:4-6.) The record shows that such idols were introduced into the temple area. (Eze 8:5-17) It may also be noted that some of these idol gods were designated as kings, the word for “king” being included within the names Molech (1Ki 11:7), Milcom (1Ki 11:5), and Malcam (Jer 49:1). Concerning the idol gods of the northern kingdom, the prophet Amos (5:26) wrote: “And you will certainly carry Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan, your images, the star of your god, whom you made for yourselves.” So, there seems to be greater weight for viewing the text as being a condemnation of idolatry rather than of a desecration of the dedicated ground by improper burial of literal rulers.