It is a bit of an archaeological oddity. For only about a hundred years, from 30 BCE to 70 CE (when the Romans destroyed the city), people in the Jerusalem area practiced a form of “secondary burial”. What this means is that when someone died family members wrapped the body in a shroud and placed it in a niche within a tomb carved out of the soft rock. Perhaps they left a few artifacts—a perfume bottle, a small lamp—to accompany the deceased.
Then the family waited—for about a year—for the flesh to decompose. Then one or more members reentered the tomb, gathered the bones together, and placed them in an ossuary or bone box. The box was made for the deceased and had to be long enough to accommodate the longest bone in the body, the femur. This is why a child’s ossuary is smaller than an adult’s.
Having a tomb was likely confined to the elite and literate members of society, and about 20% of ossuaries have the name of the deceased inscribed. The names and various other details tell us that this was a Judaic practice. It is particularly fascinating that secondary burial was practiced by a people with so many prohibitions around handling the dead.
Secondary burial was not an isolated practice. The Egyptians, the Zoroastrians (who exposed remains on platforms), and the ancient Greeks all practiced secondary burial, and it is still in use today around the world in, for example, China and Vietnam.
Burial practices are for the most part, in all cultures, stable, remaining unchanged throughout even the greatest social upheaval. When they do change, there is always a very good reason. Archaeologists have thought up many to explain the sudden change to secondary burial in Jerusalem.
Some claim it reflected a new Jewish belief in the Resurrection of the dead. Others state it started as a cultural borrowing from Romans who had subsumed the ancient Greek practice. Others are more practical: secondary burial was in answer to the increasingly high premium placed on Jerusalem real estate. Put simply, ossuaries saved on space.
Whatever the reason, the practice of secondary burial in Jerusalem—which took place exactly before, during, and after the life of Jesus—means we should be looking very carefully at the inscriptions and other archaeological evidence from these tombs to determine any links with the early Christians.
In fact, from the description of Jesus’ burial tomb in the Gospels, it is clear that the disciples themselves practiced the Jewish custom of secondary burial. After the crucifixion, they didn’t bury Jesus in the ground, but laid him in a tomb.