Funeral Customs – Past
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
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.
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,
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
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
We do believe, however, that
there are principles which a judicious child of God might
wish to consider. These relate to economics, expediency,
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
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
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
(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
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
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),
- Edersheim, Alfred (1957), Sketches
of Jewish Social Life In the Days of Christ (Grand
- Woods, Guy, N. (1986), Questions
and Answers, Vol. II (Nashville: Gospel Advocate).
[As we read over
the foregoing information, it became quite clear that—as
Christians—we would want to encourage a thoroughly Christian
type of funeral—that lifts us Christ Jesus, that edifies
those who attend, that comforts the mourners, that warns
the unsaved, and that glorifies God.
do not do this. As
Jackson has pointed out, many funerals are entirely secular
affairs. While we may not be able to influence unbelievers
and worldly people very much in their choices, true Christians
should use this opportunity to point people to Jesus Christ,
as the only hope of the living and the dead.
One point that
Jackson made in the previous article is important and points
to the direction we should take. He
says: “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
it is in a “church building” or not, we believe that there
should be teaching or edification, there should be singing—acappella—of
uplifting songs, there should be communication of comfort
to the saved (if the person was saved), and there should
be a clear presentation of the gospel for the sake of the
The funeral should be economical—with economical casket and other
burial place itself should be economical. It
is sad that vast sums of money are spent in something that
will pass away, when the money could be used to win the
lost or bless the needy. I
offer these suggestions to you for your thoughtful consideration. RH]