When Sarah dies at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham hastens to secure a burial place for her. In contrast to how we might think about where to look, he does not search out a field or any plot of land, but a cave. From the archeological record, we know that our biblical ancestors did not place their loved ones into the ground. Instead, they wrapped them in shrouds and left them in protected areas, like caves or catacombs, for a year. At the end of that time, they collected the bones and placed them with those of other family members in a special area. After the Greek and Roman conquest, some Jews put the bones in ossuaries, stone boxes which might be carved with symbols and the name of the dead. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the tradition of burial in the earth became customary Jewish practice. Recently, as land for cemeteries becomes scarce, above ground and catacomb burial is being revived among Jews in Israel.
Thinking about this history reminds me that there is no single Jewish way of doing things, even something as significant as burial. What unites all these practices is an underlying concern to preserve the dignity and memory of the deceased. Perhaps in the future Jews will be buried in skyscrapers, but those values and that love will be the same as it was when our biblical ancestors bought caves in which to place their dead.
–Rabbi Drorah Setel