Death was the supreme cause for grief, and around this ultimate tragic event elaborate mourning customs and practices arose that were more or less mandatory (see 1 Kings 14.13; Jer. 16.4–6). Mourning for those who had died involved all who were immediately affected by their demise, whether family (Gen 23.2), friends (2 Sam. 1.11–12; John 11.33), or an entire nation (1 Sam 25.1; 1 Macc. 9.21).
Mourning began immediately upon death and in the presence of the body (Gen. 23.2; 2 Sam. 3.31; Mark 5.38). Expressions of grief continued along the way to the grave (Luke 7.12), at the burial place (John 11.31), and for some time after burial. The length of the period of mourning depended on prevailing customs—seven days (1 Sam. 31.13), thirty days (Num. 20.29), as many as seventy days (Gen. 50.3), or even longer (Jth. 8.4–6).
Feelings of grief were rarely suppressed. Mourners frequently vented their grief publicly in piercing, tremulous shrieks, shrill cries, wails, chants, loud lamentations, breast‐beating, and tears (Gen 50.10; 2 Sam. 3.32–34; Mark 5.38). Personal adornments were removed, clothing was torn, the body was neglected, sackcloth was put on, and ashes were poured on the head (Gen. 37.34; Lev. 10.6; 2 Sam 1.2; 14.2; Jth. 8.4–6). It was customary to hire professional mourners to heighten this display of grief; usually these mourners were women who sang or wailed laments especially composed for the occasion or ones that were standard (2 Chron. 35.25; Jer. 9.17–20; Matt. 9.24). The funerary poems that have been preserved give some idea of the general form of such laments: they included a eulogy that was careful to name the deceased; a recounting of what had caused the person's death; and a word of consolation that focused not on the hope that the deceased lived beyond the grave but on the good name left behind by the deceased and the posterity to perpetuate that name (2 Sam. 1.18–27; 3.33–34; cf. Ezek. 19.1–14; 32.2–16; Rev. 18.9–24).
Musical instruments, principally the flute, were used to accompany the wailing of the mourners as they chanted their dirges (Jer. 48.36; Matt. 9.23). Occasionally, fasting was employed as a means of displaying grief (1 Sam. 31.11–13; Jth. 8.6). Some evidence exists, however, of a funeral feast designed to comfort the bereaved (Jer. 16.5–7).
Certain mourning customs were forbidden in Israel, such as lacerating the body and shaving the head (Lev. 19.28; Deut. 14.1; Jer. 16.6; but see Ezra 9.3; Job 1.20; Jer. 7.29). Such practices may have originated out of fear of the dead, that they might haunt the living to harm them if their funeral rites were not properly performed, but no such explanation is found in the Bible. Very ancient funeral customs remain, and are described, but they are interpreted only as signs of sorrow.
In the New Testament, funeral practices are more subdued, in part because of the eschatological hope of life beyond the grave by virtue of the resurrection of Christ. Yet there is no denial of death nor any attempt to suppress feelings of grief (John 11.25–35). Christians are asked to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12.15), but they are not to sorrow as those who have not hope (1 Thess. 4.13): death has been conquered (1 Cor. 15.54–57; Heb. 2.14–15), and death and mourning will have no part in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 7.17; 21.4).
There are other causes for mourning recorded in the Bible besides death—personal calamities, such as those experienced by Job (Job 1.13–20; 2.11–13), national disasters such as drought (Jer. 14.1–2; Joel 1.13), even impending disasters (Esther 3.13–4.3) and the threat of divine judgment (Jer. 4.5–8). Lamentations for such experiences were often identical in form with those practiced because of death (Exod. 33.4; 2 Sam. 15.32; 2 Kings 19.1–14; Ps. 35.13; Joel 1.8, 13; 2.13). On occasion, mourners also expressed their grief by sitting or lying on the ground (Judg. 20.26; 2 Sam. 12.16; Job 1.20), placing their hands over their mouths (Ps. 39.9), bowing or covering their heads (Lam. 2.10; Esther 6.12), or walking barefoot (2 Sam 15.30). Such actions and the laments that accompanied them were not simply the expected response to pain or disappointment; they were also a way of showing submission to God's will (Job 1.20–21) and contrition before him (Jer. 9.17–19; Joel 2.12–18; Jon. 3.5–10).
Gerald F. Hawthorne