In Death and After Death
The Jews felt very deeply about visiting the sick as we wrote about in the previous text. Their service of love didn’t stop there, though, as they felt it was just as urgent to bury the dead as to visit them when they had been sick. As the funeral procession passed, everyone who saw it was expected to join the convoy if it was at all possible. All reverence was shown towards the remains of the dead, and burying-places were always kept neat and clean and nothing profane was allowed there. They respected the dead so much so that they didn’t even talk out loud while there, but only carried on whispers of conversation.
Burial generally followed as soon as possible after death, except for some special reason. This was no doubt for sanitary reasons, just as we do today. The preparations for the burial of Jesus that are mentioned in the gospels – the ointment against His burial, the spices and ointments, the mixture of myrrh and aloes – find their literal confirmation in what the Rabbis tell us of the customs of the period.
At one time the poor people had a hard time burying their dead, because funerals had grown so extravagant with one person trying to outdo the other. This practice had extended to every portion of the burying, and sometimes it would totally break the poor people because they were trying to give their loved ones a proper burial. This foolish practice had led to not only just the funeral rites themselves, but to the burning of expensive spices at the grave site, depositing money and valuables in the tomb, and even to luxurious wrappings of the dead body.
At last Rabbi Gamaliel decided to start a reform of sorts. He left directions that when he died he was to be buried in simple linen garments. In recognition of this reform, a cup is to this day emptied to his memory at funeral meals. His grandson limited even the number of grave-clothes to one dress.
This burial dress was made of the most inexpensive linen, and bore the name of Tachrichin (wrappings), or else the “traveling dress”. It was usually white but any other color might be chosen also. There are some curious instances written down about the color of the garment. One Rabbi would not be buried in white or black, lest he be deemed as glad or sad, but he was buried in red. Another Rabbi ordered a white dress to show that he was not ashamed of his works; and a third directed that he should have his shoes and stockings, and a stick, to be ready for the resurrection. As we know from the Bible, Jesus’ body was wrapped in “linen clothes” and his face was bound about with a napkin.
After the body was properly prepared, the funeral rites proceeded as the Bible describes in the Gospels. From the account of the funeral procession at Nain in Luke 7, many interesting details may be learned.
First, burying places were always outside of the cities. Neither bodies of water nor roads were allowed to pass through them. Sheep also could not graze there. There were also public and private burying-places, with the private burying-places being chiefly in gardens and caves. The chief reason for visiting them was to mourn and to pray. A person was not allowed to eat or drink, to read, or even to walk irreverently among them. If he did so, he actually broke a law that he could be punished for. Cremation was denounced as a purely heathen practice and was contrary to the whole spirit of the Old Testament teaching.
Second, the body was generally carried open on a bier, or even in an open coffin. The bearers frequently changed places so that many people could have an opportunity to take part in something that they deemed worth much merit. Graves in fields or in the open were often marked by memorial columns. Children who were less than a month old were carried to the grave site by their mothers, and those under a year old were borne on a bed or stretcher.
Third and lastly, the order in which the processions seems to have wound out of Nain exactly coincides with writings that have been found from this era about the customs of the time.
According to the Bible, it was outside the city gate that Jesus and His disciples met up with the funeral procession. It was the custom in Judaea for the hired mourners and musicians to walk in front of the casket, and in Galilee these followed the casket. Since this funeral was in Galilee, the women mourners came first. An ancient Jewish commentary states that since the woman had brought death into the world, she should lead the way in the funeral procession.
Jesus recognized the the woman instantly whose son was dead. As was the custom, there were many people who were following along behind the casket. The sight of her sorrow touched him immensely and he had great compassion for her.
It was only to her that he spoke and told her to “Weep not!” He didn’t tell the procession to halt, but as he touched the casket, the people who were carrying it stood still. What followed was a marvelous sight right in the middle of the funeral procession, as the boy was raised from the dead and given back to his mother.
One word of power that was spoken from Jesus burst through death and “He that was dead sat up on his bier, and began to speak”. These simple words cannot at all portray what it must have been like in that funeral procession. We can only imagine the rejoicing of his mother and other dear friends and loved ones. It must have been a huge time of sheer wonder and rejoicing for the mother and something that she always looked at with amazement that she saw the Glory of God fall on her that very day.
Getting back to a regular burial, though, the procession on the road to the grave halted repeatedly for more to join in. At the grave site, sometimes there were many short addresses that were given, along with a funeral oration.
The picture below is a drawing of a typical funeral procession during this day and age. This would be an example of a funeral procession in Judaea.
If the grave was to be in a public cemetery, there had to be at least a foot and a half between each person buried. The caves, or rock-hewn structures, consisted of an ante-chamber in which the bier was deposited, and an inner or lower cave in which the bodies were deposited in niches. According to the Talmud these abodes of the dead were usually 6 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 10 feet high. In this one place there would have been niches for eight bodies: three on each side of the entrance, and two opposite it. Larger sepulchres could hold 13 bodies. Many of the people would try to make them large enough to hold their whole immediate family.
The entrance to the bodies in the tomb was guarded by a very large stone, or door. This structure will explain many of the particulars of the burial of Jesus and the stone being rolled away when the women came to the grave early in the morning. This will be covered in depth in the 3rd part of In Death and After Death.