26 June 2010

Death of a Hebrew: Ancient Israelite Burial Customs

 Death of A Hebrew:
Ancient Israelite Burial Customs
by Timothy S. Wilkinson

                Ancient Israelite practices surrounding death were different from the Canaanites or Egyptians, who believed the dead lived on in another world, and different from modern Western funerals and wakes, which are quiet, somber affairs. They were probably most similar to the mourning rituals of the modern people of North Africa and the rural parts of the Middle East.
                When a person died (usually surrounded by family), everyone gathered began to wail—making a sound that Micah compared to the howling of jackals and the hooting of owls (Micah 1:8). This wailing would quickly spread outside the home and into the neighborhood. Incense was lit (sometimes in huge quantities that could be smelled outside the city walls), and the people would remove their shoes, tear their clothes, dress in coarse goat’s-hair garments, beat their breasts, and throw dust or ashes on their heads. Some would even cut themselves in grief, or shave off a portion of their beard or the tops of their heads (Jeremiah 48:37 and Micah 1:16), even though these practices were forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1).
                Wealthy families would hire professional mourners—usually women—who would orchestrate the wailing and marching and help to raise the overall volume of the occasion. The “cup of consolation” might be passed among the family: a large cup of wine symbolizing the shared experience of grief. For about a week afterward the mourning would continue, and family and friends would fast (probably just during daylight hours) and neither wash nor anoint themselves with perfume or oil. This period of fasting was followed by a large funeral meal.
                Within a day or so of death, though (but not on a Sabbath or a holiday), the body was buried. To be left unburied was considered one of the worst possible fates, suitable only for the most notorious of criminals. (In the hot Palestinian climate, it would also have created a terrible stench and attracted all manner of vermin). The family would wash the body and wrap it in linen. (Egyptians, of course, embalmed their dead by removing the internal organs and storing them in canopic jars, filling the body with spices and paste, and wrapping it with bandages treated with preservatives). Sometimes they would place a cap on the deceased and wrap the jaw closed with a bandage around the head.
                A parade of mourners would follow the family members who bore the body on a stretcher from their home to the burial site. Very poor people were simply laid in a trench and then covered with dirt and stones—remains of many of these bodies have been found in the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem.
                A group of burial caves or sepulchers has been found at Ketef Hinnom, west of Jerusalem. They apparently belonged to aristocrats of the seventh century B.C.E. The caves were cut from the limestone hills. Each had a low, round entrance that led into a larger room. Within this room were benches carved from the rock, each of which had been slightly hollowed out to accommodate the shape of a body.
                Along with the remains at Ketef Hinnom were found items that had been buried with their previous owners, the most significant of which were probably two plaques of silver beaten into a thin sheet and then rolled up. On the plaques had been carved the Priestly Benediction:
May Jehovah bless you and keep you;
May Jehovah make his face shine down upon you, and may he favor you;
May Jehovah lift up his face toward you, and assign peace to you.
                One of the remarkable things about these plaques is the evidence they provide that the divine name (written as the Hebrew letters YHWH) was in common use at the time.
                The mouth of the tomb was sealed with a large disc-shaped stone or a round boulder to keep out animals, and then the entrance was painted white so that travelers would not accidentally come too near it, thereby rendering themselves ceremonially unclean.
                After the bodies had been given time to decompose, the family entered the tomb and collected the bones and any personal items from the benches and placed them in jars called ossuaries. These were placed in hollows under the benches to make room for more bodies to come. Such tombs were used over and over for many years—the Ketef Hinnom sepulcher had remains from at least 95 different individuals. This may account for the common Hebrew expression for death: that a person had been “gathered to his forefathers.”

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

No comments: