Since death is the only certainty in life (taxes being merely highly probable as many multinational corporations attempt to demonstrate), most societies develop traditional patterns for the respectful disposal of the corpse and for the grieving to be expressed in culturally sanctioned and controlled mourning.

The moans, self-inflicted blows to the chest, sacking garments, wailing, dust and ashes of a Hebrew family do not seem "controlled" to Westerners used to the unspoken restraint of "real men don't cry" and sober clothing, yet they form part of a pattern of culturally accepted behavior, the customary nature of which helped people both express and deal with their loss.

This mourning period (usually seven days) included the burial. In the heat bodies could not wait long before being interred.

It seems that there were professional (or at least recognized amateur) mourners who would assist the family in giving "proper" expression to their grief (Am 5:16)


Cremation, the burning of bodies, was unknown except as an extreme measure in time of plague or war. (In 1 Sam 31:12-13 after the disgraceful display of the bodies of Saul and his sons, the bones are burned so that they can later be properly buried.) "Proper" burial of the body was important (2 Sam 21:10-14) and mistreatment of corpses or even bones an insult to the community. Hayes (p.99) cites Assyrian examples, but cf. Jer 8:1-2.

The rich had family vaults (small caves cut into rock), ordinary graves varied according to the soil and other conditions, trench graves and pits for both single and multiple interments have been discovered.

The picture shows excavation of a cave at Khirbet Taqu`a (Tekoa) which had been used as a burial site around Amos time. (Clifford) Various pots and jars were found.

Funeral songs

As well as wailing and groaning, songs were composed and sung (at least for important people). There are a number of examples of such "laments" (qinah) in the Bible, perhaps the best known is David's lament for Saul and Jonathan (the "Song of the Bow") in 2 Sam 1:19ff.. Many have a "rhythm" of 3:2, this pattern is named after them qinah.

Prophets sometimes appropriated this form, deforming it by its context, lamenting the "death" of the nation, as Amos does in 5:1-3.


Sheol: the underworld

She'ol is the most common word for the "world" of the dead in Hebrew. It is often paralleled with "death" (mawet) and sometimes called the "pit" (shachat).

In places both sheol and mot (death) are personified as enemies of humanity and of Adonai. Mot was a Canaanite god, the enemy of Baal. Sheol was as far from God's presence as was possible. Human "existence" there, after death, was mere shadow existence - normal relationships and communication, which for the Old Testament define humanity, are impossible.

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.