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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Mourning Customs

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MOURNING CUSTOMS . The Oriental expression of grief has a twofold relationship. Towards God it is marked by silent and reverent submission symbolized by placing the hand on the mouth. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away’ ( Job 1:21 ); ‘I was dumb … because thou didst it’ ( Psalms 39:9 ). But towards the relatives and neighbours the case is altogether different. It is now an event that has to be announced as quickly and publicly as possible, and a loss which love has to deplore with passionate abandonment and an accumulation of conventional ceremony. At the moment of death a loud shrill wail is raised by those present. Its meaning is understood only too well. As the piercing, tremulous shrieks are repeated, a few inquiries are made as to the locality and circumstances, and the rapidly increasing cry is accepted as an invitation and claim to proceed to the house of mourning. Immediately after death the body is washed and robed for the burial , which usually takes place within twenty-four hours. In addition to the successive outbursts of grief by members of the family, who have to be comforted and pleaded with and led away from the prostrate figure of the dead, the sustained ceremony of mourning is attended to by the neighbours. These, usually assisted by hired mourners , arrange themselves around the bier , or on opposite sides of the room, and keep up the lamentation without intermission. In this way they afford the preoccupation of a recognized routine, and give the relief of physical outlet to feelings that either are, or are considered to be, beyond control. At times one of the chief mourners leans over the body, wringing her hands or wiping away the fast falling tears, and asking why he has left them, and who will discharge the duties that belonged to him alone, pleading for love’s sake to hear only once more the music of the voice now silent, or begging forgiveness on account of selfishness and imperfect service in the days that will never return. Meanwhile the band of mourners redouble their wailing, with beating of the breast and frantic clutching at their hair and clothes. As such paroxysms cannot last, the skilled mourners, usually women, endeavour to moderate and sustain the feeling of desolation by a plaintively descending chant. Among the singers there are usually one or two who are specially skilful in leading off with metrical phrases and rhymes of sympathetic appeal, which the others take up and repeat in concert. The invariable subject is the good qualities of the departed, and the extent of the loss which the family has been called upon to bear. In addition to the above allusions, new springs of tenderness are opened by referring to other members of the same family recently departed, and the loved one whose death they are lamenting is asked to bear messages of greeting to them. As the intimation of the bereavement reaches more distant parts of the town, or is carried to the neighbouring villages, companies of sympathizing friends come to show their regard for the dead. They announce their arrival by loud weeping and exclamations of grief; and as they enter the house the lamentation of the mourners in the room breaks out afresh. To the Western visitor unacquainted with the temperament and traditions of Oriental people, the whole scene is deeply distressing, and he has to check the feeling of repugnance by reminding himself that they would be equally shocked by the apparent callousness and ordered formality of our procedure on similar occasions. With cruel yet merciful swiftness the hour arrives for interment. The lamentation that was passionate before now becomes tumultuously defiant. Relatives lose all self-control, and, refusing to let the bearers discharge their sad office, have to be forcibly removed. The procession is then formed, and on the way to the cemetery is increased by those who join it to show their respect towards the family, and also to share the merit which the Lord attaches to service performed for those who can no longer reward it. Among the Jews, during the prescribed days of separation following upon a death in the family, the mourners are daily visited by the Rabbi, who reads the portions of Scripture and the prayers appointed by the synagogue. Over the door of the cemetery is inscribed in Hebrew’ The House of Eternity’ or ‘The House of the Living.’ The explanation given in regard to the latter term is either that the life beyond the grave is the real life, or, according to others, that the grave is the place of habitation to which all the living must come.

The references to mourning in the Bible show that the custom of to-day in Palestine is the same as in ancient times with regard to the house of mourning, although special features of liturgical form now belong to the Synagogue, the Church, and the Mosque. There is the same announcement by wailing (Micah 1:8 , Mark 5:38 ). Friends come to condole ( Job 2:11-13 ), and there is the same language of commendation and affectionate regret ( 2 Samuel 1:17-27 ; 2 Samuel 3:33-34 ). The exclamations of to-day were then used ( 1 Kings 13:30 , Jeremiah 22:18 ). Hired mourners are alluded to ( Jeremiah 9:17-18 , Amos 5:16 ); and such manifestations as the beating of the breast ( Isaiah 32:12 ), tearing of the garments ( 2 Samuel 3:31 ), fasting ( 1 Samuel 31:13 , 2 Samuel 3:35 ), the putting of ashes on the head, and the wearing of sackcloth ( 2 Samuel 12:20 ). The form of lamentation for the individual is’ applied to afflicted Israel ( Jeremiah 9:1 , Lamentations 1:16 ; Lamentations 3:48-49 ), to the historical extinction of Tyre ( Ezekiel 27:28-36 ), and to the worship of Tammuz ( Ezekiel 8:14 ). Such a rich and widely recognized symbolism of sorrow might easily be pressed into the services of religious imposture by those who wish to appear bowed down by their own devout contemplations, or as bearing upon their hearts the sins of others. Hence Christ’s note of warning ( Matthew 6:16-18 ).

The Apostle Paul commends as a Christian duty the showing of sympathy towards those in affliction (Romans 12:15 ), but intimates that in Christ the familiar phrase of greeting to the afflicted, ‘Hope is cut off!’ has been made obsolete by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus ( 1 Thessalonians 4:18 ). One of the features to which the New Jerusalem owes its title is the absence of mourning and tears ( Revelation 7:17 ).

G. M. Mackie.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mourning Customs'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/m/mourning-customs.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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