This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Bare-Bones Burials*

There has been much publicity in recent months concerning an ancient box that allegedly housed the bones of Jesus' brother James. Although most of the controversy has focused on the artifact's dating and authenticity, I suspect that many Jews must have been puzzled by the basic question of its function.

The item in question is referred to as an "ossuary," a receptacle for bones. Too small to function as a full-fledged coffin for a corpse, it was used to store the bones of the deceased following the decomposition of the flesh.

The institution of ossuaries implies that a distinction existed between the relative sanctity of the flesh and of the bones as regards their rights to permanent interment. It also presupposes that the remains can be removed from their original burial spot and relocated to a different locality, a procedure that is known as "ossilegium."

In all these respects, the practice differs radically from current halakhic standards, which insist on permanent burial of all physical remains of the corpse, even items like intravenous tubing. Israeli highway engineers and archeologists are very familiar with the outcries that come from religious circles whenever the need arises to excavate an ancient cemetery.

In reality, however, the practice of reburying bones has deep roots in Jewish history. Perhaps the most notable precedent was set by Joseph in the Bible when he commanded his descendants to remove his remains from their burial place in Egypt for re-interment in the holy land.

There exists much archeological evidence from biblical times of secondary burials in individual, family or collective ossuaries. However, the practice seems to have enjoyed its greatest popularity in Jerusalem and its environs, from the Herodian era (around 20 B.C.E.) until the city's total destruction in the second century. For some time after that event, the use of Jewish ossuaries spread to other corners of Israel.

Although they vary considerably in their physical forms, certain motifs are common in these caskets. Architectural patterns in the shape of gabled houses have been explained variously as expressing the idea of a "final home" for the departed, a portal to the next world, or homage to the holy Temple of Jerusalem. The seven-branched menorah, arguably the most widespread and identifiable symbol of Judaism, appears on many of the ossuaries. A six-petaled floral pattern known as a "rosette" is particularly common, though its symbolism (if it is not merely decorative) is not obvious.

The practice of ossilegium is discussed at considerable length in talmudic literature, where it is referred to in Hebrew as liqqut asamot, bone-gathering. The ossuaries are often identified by the Greek term "glossokomon" (which appears in Hebrew as gluskema or dluskema), or by the biblical word aron.

A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud succinctly summarizes the stages of the process and its ambivalent psychological impact on surviving family members: "At first they used to bury people in ditches. After the flesh had decomposed, the bones were collected and deposited in chests. On that day, the son would grieve, but on the following day he rejoiced because his parent had now found rest from judgment."

As we learn from the above tradition, the day on which people gathered their parents' bones for reburial combined contradictory elements of mourning and elation, in recognition that the deceased will henceforth enjoy a final repose. In this respect, the ritual is reminiscent of the emotional complexity evoked by our custom of observing the yahrzeit as a blending of celebration and sorrow for a departed loved one.

Historians are not in agreement about how or why the use of ossuaries became so popular among Jews. It is possible that the practice was dictated by the dearth of available land for conventional cemeteries within Israel's narrow borders.

Some authors have pointed out that the ancient Hebrew ideal of spending eternity in the bosom of one's family, expressed in the biblical idiom of "sleeping with one's ancestors," encouraged the creation of family mausoleums which were most conveniently (in keeping with the realities of Israeli geology) situated in caves to which the bones of the deceased would have to be relocated.

That most cemeteries and burial sites belonged to individual families is confirmed by the archeological findings, inscriptions and historical references, and is presupposed by the discussions in rabbinic sources.

Although the initial burial would sometimes be under the earth, as is our current practice, it was more common to lay the bodies in rows of niches that were carved into a cave or mountainside.

There is significance to the fact that most Jewish ossuaries were designed to preserve each skeleton by itself or with close family members, rather than in collective tombs. This development seems to dovetail with a general evolution towards awareness of the individual in the Jewish consciousness, a perception that may have some correspondence with the growing economic affluence of Judean society in Herodian times.

Some scholars trace the origins of the practice to the strong Jewish belief that there is special merit to being buried in the soil of the Land of Israel, or better still, in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where the resurrection of the dead will first commence in the messianic era. The custom of transporting ossuaries from the diaspora communities for burial in Israel is well attested in rabbinic sources, and was sometimes resented by the natives. While there are many passages in talmudic literature that speak of the atoning potential of burial in the holy land or the Temple altar, at least one ancient Zionist ridiculed the notion that Jews who had spent their lives in foreign lands should benefit posthumously from burial to the holy land.

Aside from direct communications from the Next World, there is no way to know with certainty how well the respective burial customs serve the interests of those who have departed this life. It is clear, however, that they provide the living with an opportunity to give tangible expression of their devotion to their loved ones.

This important aspect of the ritual was poignantly stated by Rabbi Eleazar ben Zadok, who described how he dutifully carried out his late father's instructions to collect his bones and place them in an ossuary. At the end of his account, Rabbi Eleazar voiced his special satisfaction at having maintained continuity from generation to generation:

"Just as he attended his father, so have I attended him."

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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