What, if any, is the biblical basis for the funeral customs practiced today in North America?
Some of today’s funeral customs have no clear precedent in Scripture. In ancient times, of course, the technology didn’t exist to do the kind of embalming customary today. The Jews usually buried the bodies of their dead within a period of 24 hours ( Deuteronomy 21:23 ; Genesis 23:4 ;John 11:17, 39 ; Matthew 27:57-60 ). Problems relating to sanitation and the rapid onset of decomposition may account for their haste. In Jewish practice, bodies were generally washed (Acts 9:37 ), anointed with aromatic spices ( 2 Chronicles 16:14 ; Mark 16:1 ), wrapped ( John 11:44 ; Mark 15:26 ), and placed in a tomb.1
Christians share with Jews a profound respect for the human body. However, modern burial customs are at least as much the result of advancing embalming technology and a desire for greater convenience as they are based on any biblical precedent. Some psychologists claim that our custom of viewing the body of a deceased loved one provides an important adjustment period in which their death can be accepted. This may or may not be true, but a little more than 100 years ago undertakers weren’t called “morticians,” coffins weren’t called “caskets,” and loved ones were not shielded from either the process of death or the preparation of the body for burial. Perhaps the advance of modern medicine has caused death to be viewed more as a kind of “defeat” rather than an inevitable part of life.
To provide some context for comparison, here is a description of Christian burial customs in Medieval times by historians Joseph and Frances Gies:
When a burgher dies, a public crier is hired to announce his death and the hour and place of burial. The doors of the house and of the death chamber are draped with black serge. Two monks from the abbey wash the body with perfumed water, anoint it with balsam and ointment, and encase it in a linen shroud; then they sew it in a deerskin and deposit it in a wooden coffin. Draped in a black pall, the coffin is placed on a bier consisting of two poles with wooden crosspieces and taken to the church, attended by a cortege of clergy and black-clad mourners, the widow and family making loud and visible lament. The bier halts outside the chancel gates (if the dead man is a priest, the body is laid out within the chancel), and the Mourning Office is said—the “Dirge,” from Dirige, the first word of the first antiphon. When the mass is over, the priest removes his chasuble, censes the body and sprinkles it with holy water, says the Lord’s Prayer, in which all join; then he pronounces the Absolutions, a series of prayers and antiphons of forgiveness and deliverance from judgment.
As the cortege proceeds to the church burial grounds, monks from the abbey lead the way with crosses, sacred books and thuribles, and mourners follow with candles. The latter are numerous, for the poor can earn alms by carrying candles in a rich man’s funeral procession. When the place of burial is reached, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the grave, sprinkles it with holy water, and digs a shallow trench in the shape of the cross. The real grave digging is then done to the accompaniment of psalms. The wooden coffin is lowered, the final collect for forgiveness said, the grave filled in, and a flat tombstone laid. (Those who cannot afford coffins rent one, and the remains are buried without the coffin.)
The procession returns to the church, singing the seven Penitential Psalms. For a time the tomb will be lighted with candles and a funeral lamp. In few years the bones may be lifted out of the grave and stacked, so that the space can be used again. (Life in a Medieval City, pp.74-75)
The drastic improvement of embalming technology has led to longer periods of mourning and visitation prior to burial. This has probably resulted in today’s health codes that no longer permit bodies that have not been embalmed to be interred in homemade coffins. At the same time, some Christians believe that the cost of modern funerals has become exorbitant. They are using simpler ways to honor their dead loved ones and treat their bodies with dignity.2
See the ATQ article, Is Cremation Wrong for Christians?
- David Rausch, in his book concerning Jews and Judaism (Building Bridges), described Jewish burial custom:
Since the body is a holy vessel, created in the image of God, it is treated with utmost respect. It is not left alone from the time of death to the funeral, and psalms are often recited in the same room. Jewish communities usually have Cheurah Kaddishas (Sacred Burial Societies), composed of groups of volunteers who wash and dress the body of the deceased and make arrangements for the burial. The act of pre-burial purification is called taharah. A few members wash the body lovingly and carefully with warm water from head to foot. Cheurah comes from the root word “friend,” and this act is one of the greatest mitzvot one can perform. Blessings are even recited before washing to connote respect and to express sorrow for any unintended disrespectful washing, and so forth.
Regardless of status, the deceased is dressed in tachrichim, simple white shrouds made of cotton or linen. If a brutal disfiguring accident has occurred, where blood has soaked into the clothing, the deceased is not washed but is buried in the same clothes. This is because the blood is viewed as sacred and deserving of burial as well. Only burial in a wooden casket under the earth is permitted. Burial usually occurs within twenty-four hours, unless an extension is needed to bring in family members from out of town. A funeral may not be conducted on the Sabbath.
The funeral is simple and dignified. There is no open casket and no makeup. At a Jewish funeral you will not hear anyone saying, “My, doesn’t he look good?” or “How lovely she appears today!” The deceased is not “asleep” in the casket. The mourner is to come to grips with this fact, and between death and burial should be confronting the reality that death has occurred. He has denied himself (according to Talmudic law) eating meat, drinking wine or liquor, bathing for pleasure, shaving, haircuts, marital relations, self-adornment, parties, and festive meals. Even the study of the Torah with its accompanying joy has been prohibited. Now he faces the casket, surrounded by friends. Family and friends follow the casket to the cemetery. Some dirt is thrown by the mourner onto the casket when it is lowered into the ground. After the burial, friends prepare the mourners’ first meal. Back To Article
- A Christian should realize that his new body, though possessing some identity with the one we now possess, will be a new “spiritual body” ( 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 ). Therefore, there is no need to take extreme measures to ensure that our earthly “shell” is preserved from change and decay. God will certainly resurrect those whose bodies have been completely destroyed by fire, devoured by animals, or obliterated by decay. For that matter God will not need to gather up the scattered molecules of our original earthly bodies.1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not imply that ashes in funerary urns or decayed or embalmed bodies in earthly graves will suddenly be reconstituted. Rather, the resurrection is the wonderful occasion in which believers who have died will again be granted full bodily form, this time in a glorified, immortal body that can never again die or undergo decay. Back To Article