Funeral Customs – Past and Present
From the time of Adam and Eve, until the days of Abraham, the Scriptures are silent as to how our early ancestors disposed of their dead. The first explicit reference to burial is in conjunction with the death of Sarah: “And Abraham rose up from before his dead [Sarah], and spake unto the children of Heth, saying, I am a stranger and sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (Gen. 23:3-4). Subsequent to this, there are many references to burying the dead.
A careful study of the New Testament in conjunction with certain Jewish writings reveals much about the funerary customs of the Jews during the time of Christ. From the works of the learned scholar, Alfred Edersheim, we have gleaned many of the following details.
When a Hebrew died the deceased’s body was laid out – either on bare ground, or on sand or salt. The first duty was to close and secure the eyes and mouth of the corpse, after it was absolutely certain death had occurred. The body then was washed with warm water (cf. Acts 9:37). This custom, called the “Purification of the dead,” still prevails among the Jews. The nails and hair were trimmed, and the body was anointed with ointment in preparation for burial (cf. Mt. 26:12; Lk. 23:56; Jn. 19:39).
Purportedly, there was great burial ostentation in that era. The more wealthy families competed with one another as to who could inter their dead most elaborately. Later, the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel introduced a reform of this extravagance. Subsequently, most Hebrews were buried in inexpensive, linen garments. The Gospel narratives reveal that the body of Jesus was wrapped in “linen clothes,” with a “napkin” about his face (possibly to keep the jaw from sagging) (Jn. 20:5,7; cf. 11:44).
Burial usually was effected as quickly as possible – frequently the same day (cf. Acts 5:6,10; 8:2). Exceptions to this could be made (cf. Acts 9:38ff). The Jews did not practice cremation, believing that such was paganistic. Too, there was a superstition that the soul could feel what was done to the body (Cornfield, p. 338).
Burial places were located outside of the cities (Mt. 8:28; 27:7,52-53). En route from the home to the tomb, the deceased was generally carried on a bier (cf. Lk. 7:14), which was probably a wooden slab. [Note: Joseph was borne out of Egypt in a “coffin,” i.e., an Egyptian mummy case (Gen. 50:26).] Along the way, the bier might be carried by various family members and friends. Women were required to lead the procession since Hebrew men felt they were responsible for introducing death into the world. Hired mourners, who shrieked and pounded their breasts, along with musicians, might accompany the funeral trek (Mt. 9:23; cf. Jer 9:17).
At the cemetery an oration would be delivered and the body would be deposited in the tomb. Frequently these were caves or rock-hewn receptacles. Within these were niches, designed to house several bodies. Usually a tomb could accommodate about eight bodies – sometimes more. The entrance to the grave was secured by a door or large stone (cf. Mt. 27:66; Mk. 15:46; Jn. 11:38-39).
The 20th century has witnessed some dramatic changes in American death customs. Perhaps some of these constitute an improvement; others do not.
A century ago burial customs were much different than today. My father grew up in a rural portion of south-central Kentucky. He once told me about the death of a neighbor lady down the lane from the family farm. My grandmother went to the cabin, washed the woman and dressed her in one of her better dresses. By the next day a wooden coffin had been fashioned. It was loaded in the back of a mule-drawn wagon and hauled to a small cemetery a couple of miles away. The family gathered around the grave for a brief service. Work was quickly resumed.
My own introduction to the experience of death came when my grandfather died. I was nine years old. We travelled to the old home place for a family gathering. By this time, there was a small funeral parlor in the nearby town. “Pappy Jackson’s” body was brought out to the country house and placed in one of the larger rooms. The older folks sat up late into the night, talking of the past by the light of flickering kerosene lamps. The following day the body was buried in the little graveyard behind Ebenezer Church near Drakesboro, Kentucky.
Over the last several decades, the American death culture has evolved considerably, and even today practices vary in different parts of the country. In the south, funerals, for the most part, continue to be very “sacred” events. Folks still pull to the side of the road when a burial procession passes. In the west, things can be radically different. A funeral can take on a wholly secular aura. I have attended services where there was no hint of the spiritual – no mention of God, no reading from the Bible, no sacred reflections, and no spiritual hymns. Some services take on an almost festive air. Popular music is played, the dress is everything from sloppy to skimpy. It is as if there is no thought at all of eternity. Too, more and more, folks are simply “too busy” to attend funerals. I have conducted services on occasion when scarcely a dozen would be in attendance – sometimes fewer!
How one arranges a funeral for a loved one (or for himself) is a very personal matter. No one should presume to lay down rigid regulations, to which all others are expected to conform. The Scriptures do not dictate this matter. If one chooses no funeral, he has not sinned. If he wishes to provide one, that is his option.
We do believe, however, that there are principles which a judicious child of God might wish to consider. These relate to economics, expediency, influence, etc.
Death is such an odious eventuality that many people neglect to do much planning for the disposal of their body. Too, death can strike suddenly and force upon us a multitude of decisions, which, due to the unexpected trauma, we are ill-prepared to make within the few days that are available to us. Frequently we are intimidated by custom. We don’t want to appear as if we did not sincerely care for our loved ones; and so we make rash, sometimes unwise judgments. And we live with the consequences of these decisions for years.
The disposition of the dead can be facilitated in a variety of ways. It is your decision to make as to what will be done with your body in the event of your death – provided your loved ones respect your wishes. (After all, once you are dead, others can do with you as they wish.) We presume, however, our families will honor our requests.
In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission began to regulate more strictly the funeral industry. Mortuaries are required by law to provide a list of the costs that are inherent in various funeral plans. Many things may be involved that the average person does not anticipate.
If one chooses a full funeral, with a viewing of the body, along with a subsequent interment, these services can be involved: Removal of the remains from home or hospital, embalming, professional charges, preparation (cosmetology, hair, etc.), visitation charges, use of funeral chapel, fees for hearse, flower van, family limo, program cards, casket, vault, opening/closing grave fees, head stone, perpetual grave care, etc.
In 1997 a nationwide survey was done of funeral expenses. The average cost of a full funeral was $5,543. That was the average! In some places, it is not difficult to quickly spend $10,000, or even more, for a funeral. Some caskets cost more than $6,000 – just by themselves! One may want to ask, therefore: Is an expensive funeral the wisest course for a Christian who believes in the principle of good stewardship? Personally, I would rather leave whatever meager resources I have remaining, to be used for the accomplishment of good to the glory of God, than to deposit them in a hole in the ground.
What Are the Options?
Christians should have some idea (from an unbiased source) as to what their options are at the time of death. The following possibilities are available.
(1) Some choose to donate their bodies to medical science. Medical schools will dispose of the remains when studies are completed. Upon request, they will return the cremains to the family.
(2) Others may elect to have no funeral at all. Either cremation of the body, or immediate burial (with no embalming, viewing, etc.) are choices. Except in certain cases, embalming is not required by law. Some oppose cremation on emotional grounds. But, as Guy N. Woods – one of the most respected Bible students of this generation – observed, cremation “violates no New Testament principle” (pp. 143-44).
(3) Memorial services are becoming more popular. The body is privately and inexpensively interred, and then, at some subsequent and convenient time, a service may be conducted at a church facility. Such is far less costly than a full funeral.
(4) Some prefer to have a simple graveside service, perhaps at the time of interment, even later. Such may involve only family members and/or close friends.
Whatever a family chooses to do is their decision. They should not feel pressured to do what they cannot afford, or that with which they are not comfortable.
Changes & Christian Influence
Increasingly, it seems, the dynamic of the modern funeral is changing. Once it was the case that funerals were conducted generally in church buildings, and were sacred occasions, characterized by the singing of hymns, prayers, some reflection upon the life of the deceased, and exhortation from the Scriptures. But things are changing considerably in some places – not necessarily for the better.
Increasingly there seems to be the trend that, rather than the leaders of the church orchestrating how the services are to be conducted, the family (including non-Christians) are planning the funeral. The resuIt is a strange mixture of the sacred and the secular. At one moment the congregation is singing “Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me,” and then, presently, over the public address system, George Jones is lamenting, “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today.” Instrumental selections are alternated with acappella singing. Too, women are being encouraged to mount the pulpit to read poetry or the Scriptures. Family members are invited to make comments regarding the deceased — which may be inappropriate, leaving the impression that the person, who perhaps was not even a Christian, is spiritually secure.
What impressions do these types of services leave with non-Christians? It seems to me that elders (or other church leaders) must be more prudent when funerals are conducted in church buildings. When services are held elsewhere, we may not have as much control, but when they are on our premises, do we not have an obligation to screen out worldly and sectarian influences?
- Cornfield, Gaalyahu (1964), Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan).
- Edersheirn, Alfred (n.d.), The Bible Educator, E.H. Plumptre, ed. (London: Cassell), Vol. IV.
- Edersheim, Alfred (1957), Sketches of Jewish Social Life In the Days of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Woods, Guy, N. (1986), Questions and Answers, Vol. II (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.