According to Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament Law, burial had to occur within 24 hours (Deut. 21:23). This was partly due to the climate in Israel, and partly because the body was considered to be ceremonially unclean and therefore had to be prepared for burial as soon as possible.
Shortly after death, family members came to mourn and prepare the body. The body was washed, anointed with various oils and spices, and wrapped with special, white linen grave clothes that contained spices (John 19:39-40).
The Mourning Process
Family and friends gathered for a very intense period of mourning involving loud expressions of sorrow and lamentation. Those who grieved frequently wore sackcloth mourning clothes, made of rough goat-hair fabric, as an expression of sorrow.
After the body was prepared, it was carried to the cemetery in a procession which included professional mourners hired to express the appropriate public grief. Often they were joined by someone playing the flute.
The period of mourning varied. Some believe that it lasted seven days as it does today in Orthodox Jewish tradition. However, a rabbinical document refers to the mourning period lasting three days, possibly because after this amount of time it was certain that the person was actually dead.
Following the sealing of the tomb, mourning continued for a total of thirty days.
The home of the deceased was considered unclean during the mourning time; nothing could be prepared to eat in the home. Neighbors provided food or the family members went to neighbors’ homes to eat, which provided a time of comfort and encouragement as the community helped the grieving family.
This extensive burial process served as a reminder of the many family members who had died in the past, and it made death a very significant part of community life.
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