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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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DEAD, MOURNINGS FOR THE. The ancient Israelites, in imitation of the Heathen, from whom they borrowed the practice, frequently cut themselves with knives and lancets, scratched their faces, or pricked certain parts of their bodies with needles. These superstitious practices were expressly forbidden in their law: "Ye are the children of the Lord your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead." The bereaved Greeks tore, cut off, and sometimes shaved, their hair; they reckonded it a duty which they owed to the dead, to deprive their heads of the greatest part of their honours, or, in the language of Scripture, made a baldness between their eyes. The same custom prevailed among the ancient Persians, and the neighbouring states. When the patriarch Job was informed of the death of his children, and the destruction of his property, he arose and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and worshipped; and in the prophecies of Jeremiah, we read of eighty men who were going to lament the desolations of Jerusalem, having their beards shaven, and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, in direct violation of the divine law, with offerings and incense in their hand, to bring them to the house of the Lord, Jeremiah 41:5 . Shaving, however, was, on some occasions, a sign of joy; and to let the hair grow long, the practice of mourners, or persons in affliction. Joseph shaved himself before he went into the palace, Genesis 41:14; and Mephibosheth let his hair grow during the time David was banished from Jerusalem, but shaved himself on his return. In ordinary sorrows they only neglected their hair, or suffered it to hang down loose upon their shoulders; in more poignant grief they cut it off; but in a sudden and violent paroxysm, they plucked it off with their hands. Such a violent expression of sorrow is exemplified in the conduct of Ezra, which he thus describes:

"And when I heard this thing I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head, and of my beard, and sat down astonied,"

Ezra 9:3 . The Greeks, and other nations around them, expressed the violence of their sorrow in the same way; for in Homer, Ulysses and his companions, bewailing the death of Elpenor, howled and plucked off their hair. Mourners withdrew as much as possible from the world; they abstained from banquets and entertainments; they banished from their houses as unsuitable to their circumstances, and even painful to their feelings, musical instruments of every kind, and whatever was calculated to excite pleasure, or that wore an air of mirth and gaiety. Thus did the king of Persia testify his sorrow for the decree, into which his wily courtiers had betrayed him, and which, without the miraculous interposition of Heaven, had proved fatal to his favourite minister; "Then the king went to his palace, and spent the night, fasting; neither were instruments of music brought before him," Daniel 6:18 .

2. Oriental mourners divested themselves of all ornaments, and laid aside their jewels, gold, and every thing rich and splendid in their dress. This proof of humiliation and submission Jehovah required of his offending people in the wilderness: "Therefore, now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the Mount Horeb," Exodus 33:5-6 . Long after the time of Moses, that rebellious nation again received a command of similar import: "Strip you, and make you bare, and gird sackcloth upon your loins," Isaiah 32:11 . The garments of the mourner were always black. Progne, having notice of Philomela's death, lays aside her robes, beaming with a profusion of gold, and appears in sable vestments; and Althaea, when her brethren were slain by Meleager, exchanged her glittering robes for black:—

"Et auratas mutavit vestibus atris." OVID.

These sable vestments differed from their ordinary dress, not only in colour, but also in value, being made of cheap and coarse stuff, as appears from these lines of Terence:—

"Texentem telam studiose ipsam offendimus

Mediocriter vestitam veste lugubri

Ejus anus causa, opinor, quae erat mortua."

"We found her busy at the loom, in a cheap mourning habit, which she wore I suppose for the old woman's death." In Judea, the mourner was clothed in sackcloth of hair and by consequence, in sable robes; and penitents, by assuming it, seemed to confess that their guilt exposed them to death. Some of the eastern nations, in modern times, bury in linen; but Chardin informs us, that others still retain the use of sackcloth for that purpose. To sit in sackcloth and ashes, was a frequent expression of mourning in the oriental regions; and persons overwhelmed with grief, and unable to sustain the weight of their calamities, often threw themselves upon the earth, and rolled in the dust; and the more dirty the ground was, the better it served to defile them, and to express their sorrow and dejection. In this way Tamar signified her distress, after being dishonoured by Amnon, "She put ashes on her head;" and when Mordecai understood that the doom of his nation was sealed, he "rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes." Our Lord alludes to the same custom, in that denunciation: "Wo unto thee, Chorazin! wo unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon. they would have repented long ago, in sackcloth and ashes," Matthew 11:21 . Intimately connected with this, is the custom of putting dust upon the head. When the armies of Israel were defeated before Ai, "Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads." The mourner sometimes laid his hands upon his head; for the prophet, expostulating with his people, predicts their humiliation in these words: "Yea, thou shalt go forth from him, and thine hands upon thine head; for the Lord hath rejected thy confidences, and thou shalt not prosper in them," Jeremiah 2:37 . In both these cases, the head of the mourner was uncovered; but they sometimes adopted the opposite custom, and covered their heads in great distress, or when they were loaded with disgrace and infamy.

3. To cover the lips was a very ancient sign of mourning; and it continues to be practised among the Jews of Barbary to this day. When they return from the grave to the house of the deceased, the chief mourner receives them with his jaws tied up with a linen cloth, in imitation of the manner in which the face of the dead is covered; and by this the mourner is said to testify that he was ready to die for his friend. Muffled in this way, the mourner goes for seven days, during which the rest of his friends come twice every twenty-four hours to pray with him. This allusion is perhaps revolved in the charge which Ezekiel received when his wife died, to abstain from the customary forms of mourning: "Forbear to cry; make no mourning for the dead; bind the tire of thy head upon thee, and put on thy shoes upon thy feet, and cover not thy lips, and eat not the bread of men,"

Ezekiel 24:17 .

4. Sitting on the ground was a posture which denoted severe distress. Thus the prophet represents the elders of Israel, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the captivity of those whom the sword had spared: "The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence; they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth; the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground," Lamentations 2:10 . Judea is represented on several coins of Vespasian and Titus, as a solitary female in this very posture of sorrow and captivity, sitting upon the ground. It is remarkable, that we find Judea represented as a sorrowful woman sitting on the ground, in a passage of the prophet, where the same calamity which was recorded on the medals of these Roman emperors is foretold: "And she being desolate shall sit upon the ground," Isaiah 3:26 .

5. Chardin informs us that when the king of Persia dies, his physicians and astrologers lose their places, and are excluded from the court; the first, because they could not cure their sovereign, and the last, because they did not give previous notice of his death. This whimsical custom he supposes has descended to modern times from a very remote antiquity; and to have been the true reason that Daniel was absent when Belshazzar saw the hand writing his doom on the wall. If the conjecture of that intelligent traveller be well founded, the venerable prophet had been forced by the established etiquette of the court to retire from the management of public affairs at the death of Nebuchadnezzar; and had remained in a private station for twenty- three years, neglected or forgotten, till the awful occurrence of that memorable night rendered his assistance necessary, and brought him again into public notice. This accounts in a very satisfactory manner, as well for Belshazzar's ignorance of Daniel, as for the recollection of Nitocris, the queen-mother, who had long known his character and abilities during the reign of her husband. This solution of the difficulty is at least ingenious.

6. It was a custom among the Jews to visit the sepulchres of their deceased friends three days; for so long they supposed their spirits hovered about, them; but when once they perceived their visage begin to change, as it would in that time in those warm countries, all hopes of a return to life were then at an end. But it appears from an incident in the narrative of the raising of Lazarus, that in Judea they were accustomed to visit the graves of their deceased relations after the third day, merely to lament their loss, and give vent to their grief. If this had not been a common practice, the people that came to comfort the sisters of Lazarus would not so readily have concluded, when Mary, on the fourth day, went hastily out to meet her Saviour, "She goeth to the grave to weep there." The Turkish women continue to follow this custom: they go before sunrising on Friday, the stated day of their worship, to the grave of the deceased, where, with many tears and lamentations, they sprinkle their monuments with water and flowers.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Dead'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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