Death and mourning are subjects which became important for us because of sin (Romans 5:12). Different countries have many different customs surrounding death, and many different ways of mourning can be seen around the world. Not only that, but customs have changed a lot through time. There is quite a bit of variation in mourning described in the Bible too, with some differences based simply on whether the person who had died was respected or loathed. Let’s have a quick look at death and mourning in the Bible, particularly in connection with the time of Jeremiah.
The house of mourning is preferable to the house of feasting according to Ecclesiastes 7:2-4. However, God excluded Jeremiah from both (Jeremiah 16:5, 8). What is the “house of mourning”? It doesn’t seem likely to be the house in a dead body would rest for some time after death because burial seems to have happened very quickly. Modern Jews apparently bury a body as soon as possible. In Jesus’ time, Lazarus was said to have been in the tomb 4 days (John 11:17) when he had been dead 4 days (John 11:39). Obviously he was buried very soon after death, as was Jesus himself.
Samuel was buried in his own house (1 Samuel 25:1), so presumably, at times, the “house of mourning” was the dead person’s home, while at other times it would have been used symbolically to describe a state of mourning.
King Asa was laid on a bier with spices and buried in a tomb he had cut out for himself (2 Chronicles 16:14).
Mourning continued for:
After the time of Moses and Aaron, there is little indication of what the mourning involved, or for how long it might have continued.
When David arranged Uriah’s death in battle, his wife Bathsheba lamented over her husband and David took her as wife after the mourning was over. This may suggest a defined time of mourning.
The law of Moses (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 14:1) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 16:6) both refer to people cutting themselves or “making themselves bald” in mourning for the dead. God condemned this behaviour, and many people assume that it was part of the worship of other gods.
A fire was made in honour of king Asa (2 Chronicles 16:14), while for Jehoram, king of Israel, it is observed that no fire was made in his honour as fires had been made for his ancestors (2 Chronicles 21:19). The passage about Asa does not seem to suggest that the fire was a cremation, but rather a large celebratory fire, possibly with spices as prophesied for King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 34:5). The same prophecy mentions that spices had been burned for earlier kings.
Jeremiah 22:18-19 indicates that King Jehoiakim, the third-last king of Judah, would have “the burial of a donkey”, being thrown out of the city and left to rot with no-one to mourn his passing.
King Josiah’s death, however, was mourned by all Judah and Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:24), and Jeremiah and others wrote laments about him (2 Chronicles 35:25) as David had when King Saul and Jonathan died (2 Samuel 1:17).
Jeremiah’s prophecies promised that many, many people would die unburied and unmourned when God’s punishment of his nation was executed (Jeremiah 8:2; 16:4-7; 25:33).
An interesting custom of mourning is mentioned in Jeremiah 16:7 where it describes breaking bread with the mourner and giving or sending him a “cup of consolation”.
God put limitations on mourning for priests. When the High Priest died, his oldest son would become High Priest. When Aaron died, God told Moses to dress Eleazar in Aaron’s clothes even before Aaron died (Numbers 20:26, 28). God said that Aaron’s garments were to be worn by his descendants and that they were to be anointed and ordained in them and wear them for 7 days thereafter (Exodus 29:29-30; Leviticus 21:12).
The new High Priest was not allowed to touch his father’s body or enter the place where the body was since Leviticus 21:10-12 explicitly says that the High Priest was not to make himself unclean, even for his father.
Other priests were allowed to do this, however, so younger sons of a High Priest could mourn their father in the ordinary way (Leviticus 21:1-2). Nevertheless, assuming that Jeremiah was a younger son of Hilkiah the High Priest (Jeremiah 1:1), he was probably not allowed to mourn for his father when he died. When God forbade Jeremiah from marrying, he also forbade him from joining people in celebrating (Jeremiah 16:8) and mourning (Jeremiah 16:5). It is easy to see that if Jeremiah did not join in mourning, it could easily have been misunderstood by family and relatives and become a cause of even greater friction. Obedience to simple commands can sometimes have far-reaching and unexpected effects.
Notes A time that was short enough for David to marry her before she gave birth although she had known she was pregnant before Uriah was killed.