Burial Customs During the Time of Christ

S. Safrai, "Home and Family," in The Jewish People in the First Century [1987], p.p. 773-

The following summarizes Jewish sources regarding burial customs at the time of Christ:

Rending the Garment
A death in the family immediately caused grief and lamentation, expressed in numerous forms some of which were required by the Halakah [the authoritative Jewish way of life found in various sources], including the obligations of the husband to his deceased wife.  Others were merely customs or even just tolerated practices.  Among the first signs of grief and mourning was the obligatory rending of garments by the members of the family,  male and female alike; this obligation was particularly grave in the case of mourning for a parent.  Those who were present at a death rent their garments even if they were not members of the family, while members of the family rent theirs either at the time of deeath or when they received notification of it. 

Lighting Candles; Continuous Attendant
Our literature stressed the fact that it was customary to assign someone to attend the corpse continuously; and candles were lit at the head or feet of the corpse out of respect for the dead.

Must be Buried Same Day as Death
After these first arrangements, the family immeditely began preparations for funeral and burial.  The traditions about the customs of Jerusaelm report that 'one should not keep the corpse through the night,' but rather bury it on the very day of death, and outside of Jerusalem efforts were also made to bury the dead as speedily as possible.  Leaving a corpse unburied through the night, for any reason, was considered to be sinfully disrespectful, and was permitted only if more time was needed for the preparation of shrouds or a coffin.  This haste may also be seen in the New Testament's account of the death of Ananias, the husband of Saphira, who was buried three hours after his death (see Acts 5:6-10). 

Mourners and Pipers
In addition to preparation of shrouds and a coffin, burial arrangements included the acquistion of keeners [mourners] and pipers.  A halakah informs us that, as a minimum, a husband was expected to provide on keening woman and two pipers for his wife's funeral, and this was required of even the poorest Jew.  In some places pipes, shrouds, coffins and other requisite items were not readily available, and various regulations dealt with problems which arose in connection with the acquistion of such items on the sabbath, to be arranged with the assistances of gentiles, so that everything would be ready for a funeral upon the conclusion of the sabbath;  other laws deal with the problems which arose if the pipers had not arrived by the scheduled start of the funeral.  ...  [The keeners] began their lamentations in the house of the deceased, even sitting upon the bed on which the corpse lay, and continued their wailing all along the route of the funeral procession.   ...  

Charitable Socities to Help Prepare Corpse
In most towns if not in all there existed charitable societies whose purpose was to care for the dead and aid the mourners, thus doing works of righteousness for both. ... These chariable groups also took care of the preparation of the corpse and perform such required functions as bath it and wrapping it in shrouds.

Preparing the Corpse
Preparatiion of the corpse  for burial consisted mainly in washing it and wrapping it in shrouds.  The Mishnah states that the corpse is anointed and rinsed.  The body was first anointed with oil to clean it and this was followed by a bath of water.  The Book of Acts, reporting the death of Tabitha in Joppa also mentions the washing of her corpse as part of the burial preparations.

The Gospel of John notes that as part of the preparation for Jesus' burial, his body was 'bound in linen cloths with spices, as was the burial custom of the Jews' (John 19:39-40; cf. 12:5-7).   ...

The preparation of the corpse for burial further included trimming the hair, the only exception being unmarried girls, who were buried with their hair loose, just as brides were brought to their wedding.  The body was wrapped in shrouds, which are frequently mentioned in Jewish sources.  These were garments specially prepared, or freshly laundered, for the purpose of wrapping the dead.  The Hebrew word for these burial garments connotes wrapping and binding more than dress  ...

Coffins, usually wooden, were used for burial, but the body was brought to the graveside, in a kliva, a sort of knitted covering.