Why was a burial place so important in the Bible?


In Genesis 49, we read Jacob’s instructions about his burial place: “And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a buryingplace. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah. The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth.” Genesis 49:29-32

Jacob was very concerned with his burial place, and he knew the exact history of the spot he had chosen. When Joseph was approaching death, he also gave instructions concerning his remains (Genesis 50:25).

One reason the burial place was so important to the patriarchs has to do with God’s promise of the land, which had to do with LIVING in the particular land God had promised. God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would possess the land where he had been buried (Genesis 12:1-3). Jacob knew that, if he was buried in Canaan, his tomb would forever remain within the Promised Land. The fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would all be buried there—three generations—emphasized their belief in God’s promise to give this land to their family.

A second important reason was that Jacob wanted to be buried with his family, but this was an emotional attachment and not a direction from God or biblical one. Still today, many people prefer to be laid to rest alongside family members as a sign of love and solidarity. In ancient times, it was considered an honor to be buried in a family plot. Many a king’s death is recorded as he “rested with his ancestors” (e.g., 2 Kings 14:16; 2 Chronicles 21:1). Jacob’s desire to be buried with his wife, father, and grandfather displayed his deep love for his family.

A third reason Jacob desired to be buried in the cave of Machpelah was that it was land he and his family owned. Jacob’s grandfather had purchased it from the Hittites. Though Jacob had been given land in Egypt to live in, he did not consider it his own. His home was in Canaan, the land where he had been born and raised and where he wished to be buried.

A fourth reason for the patriarchs’ insistence on their burial place in Canaan was that they held on to the hope of a future kingdom. “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Hebrews 11:9-10

“But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:16

The patriarchs understood that their death was not the end of life. Instead, God had a future kingdom prepared. Burial for common people was more primitive, open graves etc. But the these dead mean as much to God as those buried in tombs. Location and method of burial is not standardized in scripture. The Christian Church gave primitive burial practices a dignity that expresses the church's importance, rather then the improtance of burial to God, consider the valley of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). By the late 5th century, the dead were brought to the church for a religious mass. People were buried in the clothes that during their life indicated their positions as — Kings, Knights, Priests, Monks, etc. all wore their own particular garb. Burial up to this time always took place outside city walls, but when Constantine's Edict of Toleration was passed in 313 A.D., burial within city walls was given its impetus.

People wished to be buried in or near the church. This gave rise to the church graveyard and in Europe today many important religious figures are buried in or under churches. Including 100 of the 264 Popes are buried in the Vatican, including the Apostle Peter.

Embalming from Egypt, cremation from Greece and Scandinavia, funeral Mass from Europe, funeral sermons from early New England, all still exist with us today. The funeral as we know it can be traced back thousands of years.

Today the funeral and burial is a testament to a life lived. It allows us to express our grief. Resolution of grief is really important, unresolved grief is a considered a silent killer. Substance abuse, mental/physical illness, crime, suicide, are but some of the traits that can result from an incomplete relationship as a result of death, divorce, or separation.

Relationships never end... only change, the completion of them is necessary for ones future health, both mental and physical. We all must complete and heal our emotional relationships with those that have died — and then say good-bye.

But all these considerations and practices are a human condition that has nothing to do with Gods capacity to create life or regenerate a body. Concerns about ones body and where and how it is laid after death is a vanity, burial does nothing to effect the process of the rapture outside of accepting Christ as the Savior, what happens to our bodies is irrelevant outside of any tradition.

There as so many ways that people die and almost as many ways bodies are treated after death. Even Jezebel was eaten by dogs with only her palms, feet and skull remaining. (2 Kings 9:30-37)

There is no continuity in the beliefs that surround burial, each culture or belief system involved no matter how outrageous, stands on the conviction that everyone believes that what they are doing is absolutely right, and virtually none of these traditions are biblical, even those practices that are in some way mentioned in scripture, are not a standard or edict from God to practice.

Arguably, the most sacred of burials in the Biblical accounts is Moses, God buried him directly. “And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” Deuteronomy 34:4-6

The most significant burials of God were open graves, the death of all mankind save Noah and his family in the flood, which left bodies in various states, including fish consumption. These were all deaths and burials that God Himself was directly involved in addition to any command of God to the Angels in the killing of men which left bodies unburied on the ground. (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36, 2 Samuel 24:15) The destroyer which killed the first born of Egypt.

“And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.” Exodus 11:5

Burial is basically what you make it within a given tradition.

The method of death is no more sacred then a burial because it involves a shell, not the person themselves as God sees it, so whether you die intentionally or by happenstance, eaten by cannibals, burned by volcanoes, dismembered, flaying, melted by acids, crushed, pulverized, consumed by earth quakes, drawn and quartered, blood eagled, beheaded, lost in space, run over by stampedes of humans or animals, eaten by sharks, whales or other sea creatures, hanging, being sawn in half, eaten by bugs, cancer, heart attacks, disease, drugs or any number of ways man meets his end. Death itself and ones remains is inconsequential outside the emotion of the living.

There are many belief systems when it comes to actual burials, most of which have to do with religious tradition rather then any biblical principals. The Jews insist that the body be kept intact for burial, wrapped in linen and anointed with oil.

The Greeks often placed the dead in coffins, but the Jews rarely did this, preferring instead to leave a body wrapped in burial clothes open on a stone slab.

A body left on an open stone slab in a tomb or cave will eventually decompose. The bones left over would either be placed in a common burial chamber further back in the cave and then a new body is placed on the slab, (a rotation of sorts, this process is where the phrase “to sleep with one’s ancestors” comes from), if the remains were not placed in the back of the cave, they would be collected into an ossuary for preservation by the family.

It was normal for burial to proceed as quickly as possible in the Near East, given what the heat and sun could do to a body. Jewish custom required that a body be buried the same day. If it was the sabbath, immediately after the sabbath period was over. Jewish tradition is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead so there is no viewing of the body as is the custom in Christian tradition. Embalming is not typical, the body is bathed, dressed in shrouds made of pure white linens, male members of the Chevra Kadisha dress men, women dress the woman. The symbolism is that we are all the equal in death. The modern tradition is that they are buried in a simple wooden casket without any metal parts. Traditional funerals have no flowers, and last about 20 minutes.

For over 3000 years Jews have been buried on the Mount of Olives based on the tradition that when the Messiah comes, the resurrection of the dead will begin there. The dead will rise from their graves and walk to the holy Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. From the Mount of Olives cemetery, that’s only a few hundred metres. In the Jewish tradition, everyone in that cemetery is buried with their feet facing the Temple Mount, so when they rise they come straight up and don’t even have to turn around. There are more than 150,000 buried there.

“And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.” Zechariah 14:4

There are so many rituals all around the world, it is impossible to find any uniformity. Death is handled purely on the beliefs of the people in a particular culture. To one the traditions are abhorrent, while the same ritual to another is sacred.

The Egyptians were the first to embalm — mainly for the preservation of the body, the High Priest was the "Embalmer". Due to both their religious beliefs and an arid climate, this culture is the most studied today with regard to their funeral practices. Many things they did are still practiced today.

The mummification process involved ritually washing the corpse and then removing any organs that might contribute to the rotting process. The the liver, stomach, lungs and intestines were all removed and placed in ‘canopic’ jars to be interred along with the body.

The brain, was not believed to be of much use in the afterlife, so it was removed through the nostrils, and disposed of. The heart would be placed near the throat, due to the belief that the heart was the source of a person’s life force and that any damage to it would result in a ‘second death.’ After this, the body would be dried out and padded so that it retained its lifelike proportions. It would be preserved with natron or bitumen.

Before the final process of wrapping the body and entombing it, a priest, wearing the mask of the Jackal-headed god Anubis (who oversaw the judging of the soul in the afterlife) would perform the last rites. The priest would open the mouth to grant the dead the power to speak and eat in the next life. The body would be wrapped in hundreds of yards of line bandages and decorated, often with the person’s face painted over the bandages. The whole process would take up to 70 days. These mummies would be put in a series of coffins, each inscribed inside and out with texts and symbols to facilitate the passage to the afterlife.

This is in contrasts to Egypt’s Near Eastern cultures which cremated the bodies of the deceased. The Zoroastrians left the dead to be consumed by vultures and later collected the bones.

There are more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, with the largest and most famous being the complex of pyramids in the Giza Necropolis and Cairo. Its a complex that consists of the Great Pyramid of Giza (tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu), the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure, the Great Sphinx statue, as well as several other smaller satellite pyramids.

The Pyramid of Giza is the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When it was completed in 2560 BC, the pyramid was 481 feet tall with each base side being 758 feet wide. The blocks weigh about 1.5 tons each, with the internal granite blocks used as the roof of the burial chamber which are about 80 tons each. The base sides have a mean margin of error of only 2 1/3 inch, all for one mans body. Today that might be a bit excessive.

In the royal Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. – 1046 B.C.) the emperors would take their servants and concubines to the grave with them, there were hundreds of skeletons uncovered that suggest they were interred alive. This was human sacrifice, it stopped by the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), just as with the Egyptians, they used pottery figures instead to replace people. This would be akin to the President of the US having a lifetime appointment and when he died his entire cabinet was buried alive with him. Today that may be a bit much.

The burial ground of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor and the unifier of China, was buried in a tomb with treasures that would rival any of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s, inside his tomb was pearl-laced ceilings (in a pattern that represented the cosmos) and channels dug in the ground with flowing mercury to represent the rivers of China, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, acrobats, strongmen and officials with 8,000 life-like and life-sized statues of Terracota soldiers buried to help the Emperor rule in the afterlife. No two faces of these statues are alike.

On the other extreme, the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Italy, in the 16th century, monks excavated the catacombs and began a tradition that lasted until the 19th century. They mummified the bodies of the dead, dressed them up in everyday clothing and then hung the bodies for display on the monastery walls. At that time it was a status symbol to be entombed in the Capuchin monastery – the families would even change the clothes on a regular basis according to contemporary fashion! When the last body was interred in the late 1800s, there were 8,000 mummies on the walls of the Capuchin monastery.

People in the Solomon Islands place their dead on the reefs surrounding the islands for sharks to eat. The British Navy would stitch the body into a shroud with the last stitch passing through the corpse’s nose. The body would be weighted down with lead shot to make sure it sank properly and did not find its way ashore. After being given a religious service presided over by the captain of the ship, the body would be tipped into the water feet first.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a coin was placed on the eyes or inside the mouth in the belief that the dead’s soul would need it to pay the ferryman Charon to take them across the river Styx into the afterlife.

The Benguet of Northwestern Philippines blindfold their dead and place them next to the main entrance of the house, while their Tinguian neighbors dress the body in their best clothes, sit them on a chair and place a lit cigarette in their lips.

The Caviteño, who live near Manila, bury their dead in a hollowed-out tree trunk. When someone becomes ill, they select the tree where they will eventually be entombed. Meanwhile, the Apayo, who live in the north, bury their dead under the kitchen.

Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe in the transmigration of spirits after death – that the soul moves on, while the body becomes an empty vessel. To return it to the earth, the body is chopped into pieces and placed on a mountaintop which exposes it to the elements — including vultures. It’s a practice that’s been done for thousands of years, about 80% of Tibetans still choose it.

The Malagasy people of Madagascar have a ritual called “the turning of the bones.” Once every five or seven years, a family has a celebration at its ancestral crypt where the bodies, wrapped in cloth, are exhumed and sprayed with wine or perfume. As a band plays at the event, family members dance with the bodies. For some, it’s a chance to pass family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s a time to remember and tell stories of the dead.

Mongolians believe in the return of the soul. The lamas pray and offer food to keep evil spirits away and to protect the remaining family. They place blue stones in the dead persons bed to prevent evil spirits from entering it. The family burns incense and leaves food out to feed all visiting spirits. When time comes to remove the body, it must be passed through a window or a hole cut in the wall to prevent evil from slipping in while the door is open.

The body is taken away from the village and laid on the open ground. A stone outline is placed around it, and then the village dogs that have been penned up and not fed for days are released to consume the remains. What is left goes to the local predators.

The indigenous Haida people of the American northwest coast, simply cast their dead into a large open pit behind the village. Their flesh is left to the animals. But if one was a chief, shaman, or warrior, the body was crushed with clubs until it fit into a small wooden box about the size of a piece of modern luggage. It was then fitted atop a totem pole in front of the house of the man’s tribe where his body and various icons of the totem acted as guardians for the spirits’ journey to the next life.

On the mostly Hindu Isle of Bali, fire is the vehicle to the next life. The body or Mayat is bathed and laid out on a table where food offerings are laid beside it for the journey. Lanterns line the path to the persons hut to let people know he or she has passed and act as a reminder of their life so they are not forgotten.

It is then interred in a mass grave with others from the same village who have passed on until it is deemed there are a sufficient number of bodies to hold a cremation. The bodies are unearthed, cleaned, and stacked on an elaborate float, gloriously decorated by the entire village and adorned with flowers. The float is paraded through the village to the central square where it is consumed by flames, and marks the beginning of a massive feast to honor and remember the dead.

In the Hawaiian Islands, a traditional burial takes place in a cave where the body is bent into a fetal position with hands and feet tied to keep it that way, then covered with a tapa cloth made from the bark of a mulberry bush. Sometimes the internal organs are removed and the cavity filled with salt to preserve it. The bones are considered sacred and believed to have diving power. Many caves in Hawaii still contain these skeletons, particularly along the coast of Maui.

Today, if one has enough money, you can be launched into space aboard a private commercial satellite and a capsule containing your ashes will be in permanent orbit around the earth. Perhaps this is the ultimate burial ceremony, or maybe the beginning of a whole new way that man continues to find new and innovative ways to provide a safe passage to what awaits us at the end of this life.

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© 2020 Tony - Antonakis Maritis