This word is derived from the Greek words sarx (flesh) and pha·geinʹ (to eat), thus literally meaning “flesh-eating.” The term comes from the stone coffins of the ancient Greeks, made of a particular limestone believed to consume the flesh of the corpse. Pliny the Roman historian stated that the body would be consumed in forty days.
Materials other than limestone were used, and the term “sarcophagus” applies generally to any coffin made of stone, granite, porphyry or terra-cotta. They were sometimes the size of a casket and at other times in the form of a tomb. Usually highly decorated, they were at one and the same time a coffin and a monument.
Sarcophagi are not mentioned directly as such in the Bible, although some lexicographers suggest the possibility that King Og’s “bier” or bed of iron may have been a sarcophagus of black basalt. The Arabs still call basalt by the name of iron.—Deut. 3:11.
Sarcophagi are to be found among the ancient Greeks, Romans, Etruscans, Phoenicians and Egyptians. The Egyptians used limestone, basalt, marble or granite and the royalty always had coffins made from the more expensive marble. Some seventeen delicately sculptured sarcophagi were found at the site of Sidon in Lebanon in 1887 and are believed to have been from about the fourth century B.C.E., perhaps containing bones of the kings of Sidon.
When Joseph was prepared for burial, according to the custom of the Egyptians he was embalmed and put in a coffin. (Gen. 50:26) The Septuagint Version uses the Greek word so·rosʹ in this text, the word originally denoting a receptacle for containing the bones of the dead; then a coffin; then, the funeral couch or bier on which the Jews bore their dead to burial. This is the Greek term used at Luke 7:14, where it is said that Jesus touched the bier of the widow of Nain’s son.
However, stone sarcophagi such as described previously were not used among the early Jews.