Burial in Ancestral Estate among Jews in Ancient Times

Meir Bar-Ilan

The purpose of this article is to examine family burial customs in the Scriptural, Apocryphal and Rabbinic sources. Emphasis is placed on social aspects and the social status of the individual, before and after his death.

The Scriptural sources emphasize that a burial is a return to ancestors and proper burial should be carried out in the ancestral estate, at the family burial site. The Apocryphal literature (1 Maccabees, Testament of Judah, Adam and Eve, Lives of the Prophets) provides different data in matters of burial, some of them unique.

Rabbinic literature contains laws regarding both appropriate burial among members of the family and also the punishment of sinners by not being buried in the family plot. Subjects discussed include laws dealing with the sale of the ancestral plot and some knowledge about separate burial of priests, converts and mamzerim.

The social analysis of the sources shows that the Land of Israel was preferred for burial because of its perception as the "ancestral estate" par excelance and that a person's status in his lifetime was preserved after death. Comparison of modern and ancient cemeteries clarifies how the people of the ancient world perceived life and death, a subject of interest not only to necrologists.

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last updated: June 1, 1999