Denial of death in the oldest burials

Avraham Ronen, Professor (Emeritus) of Prehistory

Placed out of the reach of scavengers, the human corpse was first buried some hundred thousand years ago, revealing the oldest concern for human dignity. Placed in a pit cut in the ground, the notion "…and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3, 19) long preceded the scripture. Some of the oldest burials had various symbolic objects placed with them: animal head parts (skull, antlers or jaw), sea shells and fragments of red ochre. Some of the animals placed in the grave were of outstanding size which would suggest specialized hunting expeditions, indicating in turn a community involvement in the act of burial. The corpse was placed in the pit in a flexed, fetus position. The artificial womb, the fetus position and the symbolic grave goods render death as a transition between two phases of existence, the ordinary and a different one. Thus by the symbolic act of burial, the finality of death is denied.

Death and fire were already linked one hundred thousand years ago, as some of the oldest burials are accompanied by hearths. The link presently continues through eternal flames and memorial candles. The link probably stems from fire being seen as the essence of life (permanent heat, move and consumption). Fire is the only substance humans can kill and revive at will, whence the awareness of death could have stemmed. It is also possible that at the onset of the awareness of death fire was intended to cure the dead.

On the Shabbat, finally, humans are set apart from both fire and death. Removed in time before the control of fire and the awareness of death, on the seventh day of the week humans are placed in Eden.

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