The main difference between funerals in the first century and today has to do with our modern embalming practices. Nothing like this existed then so burial took place not after a few days, but a few hours. When it was determined that a person had died, their eyes would be closed, and their body would be washed and anointed. They were dressed in a favorite garment and their arms and legs were wrapped with strips of cloth, while their body was wrapped with sheets of fabric. A mixture of myrrh and aloes was generously applied to these wrappings to perfume it (Psalm 45:8). A napkin was secured over the face and the body was ready for burial or entombment.
Due to the hilly terrain of Judea and Galilee, entombment was a common option. The body would be placed inside the cave/tomb (perhaps on a carved out shelf or flat place so it would be off the ground). After a period of time, the body would decay down to the bones and these would be taken and placed in a box known as an ossuary. This box would then be placed back in the tomb. Depending on the size of the cave, it could contain several of these and serve as a family tomb. In practice, it wasn’t much different than a mausoleum.
All of this meant that the sequence was the opposite of what it is today when a person dies and there are a few days of visiting with the family (while those from out of town arrive), before the funeral is held. Since burial took place a few hours after death, attending the actual funeral was basically impossible for anyone who lived out of town. By the time you heard about someone’s passing, they had already been buried. Instead, you would go and pay your respects to the family.
This means even if you lived and worked in Jerusalem (a couple of miles from Bethany), it was entirely possible that if Lazarus died (and was buried) on a Monday, you might not hear about it until Tuesday. If you couldn’t get away the next day, then it could be Thursday before you made it out to see Mary and Martha.
On the road to Bethany, you hear that the prophet Jesus is on His way to see His friends. Like most people, you have heard a lot about Him and now your journey of sadness takes on an curious element of anticipation. When you arrive, Jesus has not yet made it to Bethany and you offer your consolation to the distraught sisters. Martha leaves so she can meet Jesus on the road. Soon she’s back and wants Mary to go with her. You assume they’re going to the tomb so you and many others follow them.
But your destination is not the tomb—it’s Jesus. Mary says something to Him that you can’t quite make out but His words are clear—“Where have they laid Him?” Everyone heads to the tomb and that’s about the last normal thing that happens. Everything after that is wondrous blur.
You remember that Jesus was weeping and asked them to roll away the stone sealing the tomb. The sisters were visibly shaken and upset by this. Jesus said something about seeing the glory of God. Some men began to push the stone and it’s so quiet you can hear the ground crunch under its weight. When it was out of the way, Jesus stepped toward the opening and began to pray. (You wondered why the stone had to be rolled away for Him to pray).
And then He roared, “Lazarus, Come out!”
The words were stunning. Had His grief gotten the best of Him? What was He thinking rationally?
And then Lazarus walked out of the tomb.
It was the most incredible thing you had ever seen.
You’d gone to a funeral and ended up witnessing a resurrection.
You’d seen the prophet Jesus, and now know He is the Messiah.
It was the best funeral you’d ever been to!