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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Burial

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the interment of a deceased person; an office held so sacred, that they who neglected it have in all nations been held in abhorrence. As soon as the last breath had fled, the nearest relation, or the dearest friend, gave the lifeless body the parting kiss, the last farewell and sign of affection to the departed relative. This was a custom of immemorial antiquity; for the patriarch Jacob had no sooner yielded up his spirit, than his beloved Joseph, claiming for once the right of the first-born, "fell upon his face and kissed him." It is probable he first closed his eyes, as God had promised he should do: "Joseph shall put his hands upon thine eyes." The parting kiss being given, the company rent their clothes, which was a custom of great antiquity, and the highest expression of grief in the primitive ages. This ceremony was never omitted by the Hebrews when any mournful, event happened, and was performed in the following manner: they took a knife, and holding the blade downward, gave the upper garment a cut in the right side, and rent it a hand's breadth. For very near relations, all the garments are rent on the right side. After closing the eyes, the next care was to bind up the face, which it was no more lawful to behold. The next care of surviving friends was to wash the body, probably, that the ointments and perfumes with which it was to be wrapped up, might enter more easily into the pores, when opened by warm water. This ablution, which was always esteemed an act of great charity and devotion, was performed by women. Thus the body of Dorcas was washed, and laid in an upper room, till the arrival of the Apostle Peter, in the hope that his prayers might restore her to life. After the body was washed, it was shrouded, and swathed with a linen cloth, although in most places, they only put on a pair of drawers and a white tunic; and the head was bound about with a napkin. Such were the napkin and grave clothes in which the Saviour was buried.

2. The body was sometimes embalmed, which was performed by the Egyptians after the following method: the brain was removed with a bent iron, and the vacuity filled up with medicaments; the bowels were also drawn out, and the trunk being stuffed with myrrh, cassia, and other spices, except frankincense, which were proper to exsiccate the humours, it was pickled in nitre, in which it lay for seventy days. After this period, it was wrapped in bandages of fine linen and gums, to make it adhere; and was then delivered to the relations of the deceased entire; all its features, and the very hairs of the eyelids, being preserved. In this manner were the kings of Judah embalmed for many ages. But when the funeral obsequies were not long delayed, they used another kind of embalming. They wrapped up the body with sweet spices and odours, without extracting the brain, or removing the bowels. This is the way in which it was proposed to embalm the lifeless body of our Saviour; which was prevented by his resurrection. The meaner sort of people seem to have been interred in their grave clothes, without a coffin. In this manner was the sacred body of our Lord committed to the tomb. The body was sometimes placed upon a bier, which bore some resemblance to a coffin or bed, in order to be carried out to burial. Upon one of these was carried forth the widow's son of Nain, whom our compassionate Lord raised to life, and restored to his mother. We are informed in the history of the kings of Judah, that, Asa being dead, they laid him in the bed, or bier, which was filled with sweet odours. Josephus, the Jewish historian, describing the funeral of Herod the Great, says, His bed was adorned with precious stones; his body rested under a purple covering; he had a diadem and a crown of gold upon his head, a sceptre in his hand; and all his house followed the bed. The bier used by the Turks at Aleppo is a kind of coffin, much in the form of ours, only the lid rises with a ledge in the middle.

3. The Israelites committed the dead to their native dust; and from the Egyptians, probably, borrowed the practice of burning many spices at their funerals. "They buried Asa in his own sepulchres, which he made for himself in the city of David, and laid him in the bed which was filled with sweet odours, and divers kinds of spices, prepared by the apothecaries' art; and they made a very great burning for him," 2 Chronicles 16:14 . Thus the Old Testament historian entirely justifies the account which the Evangelist gives, of the quantity of spices with which the sacred body of Christ was swathed. The Jews object to the quantity used on that occasion, as unnecessarily profuse, and even incredible; but it appears from their own writings, that spices were used at such times in great abundance. In the Talmud it is said, that no less than eighty pounds of spices were consumed at the funeral of rabbi Gamaliel the elder. And at the funeral of Herod, if we may believe the account of their most celebrated historian, the procession was followed by five hundred of his domestics carrying spices. Why then should it be reckoned incredible, that Nicodemus brought of myrrh and aloes about a hundred pounds' weight, to embalm the body of Jesus?

4. The funeral procession was attended by professional mourners, eminently skilled in the art of lamentation, whom the friends and relations of the deceased hired, to assist them in expressing their sorrow. They began the ceremony with the stridulous voices of old women, who strove, by their doleful modulations, to extort grief from those that were present. The children in the streets through which they passed, often suspended their sports, to imitate the sounds, and joined with equal sincerity in the lamentations. "But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have mourned you and ye have not lamented," Matthew 9:17 . Music was afterward introduced to aid the voices of the mourners: the trumpet was used at the funerals of the great, and the small pipe or flute for those of meaner condition. Hired mourners were in use among the Greeks as early as the Trojan war, and probably in ages long before; for in Homer, a choir of mourners were planted around the couch on which the body of Hector was laid out, who sung his funeral dirge with many sighs and tears:—

Οι δ ' επει εισαγαγον κλυτα δωματα , τον μεν επειτα Τρητοις εν λεχεεοσι θεσαν παρα δ ' εισαν αοιδους , Θρηνων εξαρχους . κ .τ .λ .

Il. lib. xxiv, 50. 720.

"A melancholy choir attend around,

With plaintive sighs and music's solemn sound; Alternately they sing, alternate flow

The obedient tears, melodious in their wo." POPE.

In Egypt, the lower class of people call in women who play on the tabor; and whose business it is, like the hired mourners in other countries, to sing elegiac airs to the sound of that instrument, which they accompany with the most frightful distortions of their limbs. These women attend the corpse to the grave, intermixed with the female relations and friends of the deceased, who commonly have their hair in the utmost disorder; their heads covered with dust; their faces daubed with indigo, or at least rubbed with mud; and howling like maniacs. Such were the minstrels whom our Lord found in the house of Jairus, making so great a noise round the bed on which the dead body of his daughter lay. The noise and tumult of these retained mourners, and the other attendants, appear to have begun immediately after the person expired. It is evident that this sort of mourning and lamentation was a kind of art among the Jews: "Wailing shall be in the streets; and they shall call such as are skilful of lamentation to wail," Amos 5:16 . Mourners are still hired at the obsequies of Hindoos and Mohammedans, as in former times. To the dreadful noise and tumult of the hired mourners, the following passage of Jeremiah indisputably refers; and shows the custom to be derived from a very remote antiquity: "Call for the mourning women that they may come; and send for cunning women, that they may come, and let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters," Jeremiah 9:17 .

The funeral processions of the Jews in Barbary are conducted nearly in the same manner as those in Syria. The corpse is borne by four to the place of burial: in the first rank march the priests, next to them the kindred of the deceased; after whom come those that are invited to the funeral; and all singing in a sort of plain song, the forty-ninth Psalm. Hence the Prophet, Amos 8:3 , warns his people that public calamities were approaching, so numerous and severe, as should make them forget the usual rites of burial, and even to sing one of the songs of Zion over the dust of a departed relative. This appears to be confirmed by a prediction in the eighth chapter: "And the songs of the temple shall be howlings in that day, saith the Lord God; there shall be many dead bodies in every place; they shall cast them forth with silence;" they shall have none to lament and bewail; none to blow the funeral trump or touch the pipe and tabor; none to sing the plaintive dirge, or express their hope of a blessed resurrection, in the strains of inspiration. All shall be silent despair. See SEPULCHRES .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Burial'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/b/burial.html. 1831-2.

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