Why Do People Throw Dirt On Caskets During a Burial?

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If you’ve attended a funeral, odds are you’ve seen a few different customs and traditions you weren’t familiar with. Each religion and culture has its own ways to mourn the dead, and these ideas are rooted in deep symbolism and meaning. One important symbol is the act of throwing dirt on caskets during a burial. 

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Though it appears grim to someone unfamiliar with this practice, it has great significance in a variety of cultures and religions. In general, this is a way to pay respect and symbolize the return of the body to nature. 

Whether you’re attending a funeral or planning a funeral service for someone you love, it’s important to know different customs so you’re prepared. In this guide, we’ll explore why people throw dirt on caskets during a burial as well as the symbolism behind it. 

Where Does Throwing Dirt on Coffins Come From?

Whether you’re burning a loved one in a public or private cemetery, it’s common to see friends and family throw dirt on the casket before it’s buried into the ground for good. While cemetery sextons or caretakers are the ones who bury the casket, the practice of funeral guests throwing dirt carries a lot of symbolism. 

Different religions and cultures across the globe have a similar practice when it comes to dirt over the casket, so it’s interesting to compare these histories side by side. This is a tradition that’s rooted in human burial traditions for generations. 

Ancient Egypt customs

One of the first instances of dirt placed on the grave dates back to ancient Egypt. In these times, it was common for early Egyptians to place sand on the body and the coffin. These were seen as an offering to the grave. People often placed pottery, bread, beer, animal products, ashes, sand, and mud. 

The number of grave offerings held a lot of meaning for ancient Egyptians. It was a sign of status, especially for the elite. Having a large number of offerings, even if it’s just sand and mud, was a sign of a life well-lived. In other words, it’s a form of respect. 

Jewish customs

The Jewish faith has strong practices around handling the dead and turning the body to nature. During a Jewish burial, groups gather to throw away three or 13 spadefuls of soil. This has to do with the three layers of the soul in Jewish culture as well as the 13 spadefuls found in Psalms 78:38. Essentially, this is a way to wish for the soul to find peace. 

Mourners typically put three shovels of soil in the grave. Traditionally, burying a loved one was a communal event, and the entire family helped. Today, Jewish tradition has families pour three scoops of sand into the grave as a callback to this earlier custom. 

Unlike other customs, it’s frowned upon to leave the cemetery before the grave is fully lowered into the ground. Though it can be challenging, rabbis usually gently encourage mourners to stay while the casket is lowered and covered. Not only does this symbolize the family being a part of this process, but it can help the family find closure after a loss knowing their loved one is securely within the ground.

Christian customs

A common theme in Christianity is the symbolism of dust and ash. In Genesis 3:19, when Adam and Eve disobey God and spread the curse of sin, God curses man to experience death. He says, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

This theme of returning to ash and dust is common throughout scripture. By placing dirt on the casket, families are evoking this symbolism and completing the cycle of life and humanity. It’s often paired with prayer, Bible readings, and remembrance of the loved one. 

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What Does Throwing Dirt on a Coffin Mean?

With all of the above in mind, what does throwing dirt on a coffin actually mean? While each family has its own way to honor the dead and say goodbye to those they leave, there’s a lot of symbolism found in this practice. 

Return to nature

The biggest symbol of throwing dirt on the grave is to recognize the burial as a return to nature. Many cultures around the world see death as a natural part of life. It isn’t necessarily something to be sad about. It’s a time for change and returning to nature. 

For families, this symbolism brings a lot of peace and comfort. The first batch of dirt being thrown by close family and friends is a way to honor this cycle and show acceptance. 

Saying goodbye

One of the hardest parts of burial is saying goodbye to your loved one for the final time. Throwing dirt on the grave is a visual symbol of this goodbye, and it’s a final offering to the loved one. 

By leading the burial effort with the initial throws of dirt, the family takes a step closer to closure. Having a way to formally ‘say goodbye’ carries a lot of meaning for those actively grieving. Finding closure is difficult, and this is a small way to pay final respects.

Intimacy and caretaking

For many, burning a loved one is an act of love. When all of the people who loved a person offer support and involvement, they practice caretaking even in these final moments.

Taking part in the burial by throwing dirt on the casket is a symbolic way to take care of your loved one even in the end. 

Green burials

With the rise of green burials, an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burials, more families are taking a strong role in the burial process. Beyond simply placing dirt on the casket, some families are helping with the entire burial process as part of a green burial. 

The symbolism behind this is quite literally a return to earth. Mother nature nourished your body throughout life, and now the body returns to provide nourishment to the earth. For these families who choose a green burial, it’s up to them how much involvement they’d like in the burial process.

Respect

Last but not least, throwing dirt on the casket is a way to show respect. Regardless of your culture and beliefs, taking part in this ancient tradition shows the family that you’re present and taking part in this service actively. 

Many families like to say they’re a part of the burial. Saying “I buried my brother” is a lot more powerful than saying you simply watched. The handful of dirt on the casket is a symbolic way to pay final respects, whether you’re burning a loved one or supporting the family.

A Return to Nature: Throw Dirt on the Grave

There are a lot of questions to ask when buying a cemetery plot. However, sometimes it’s more important to consider the traditions and practices around the burial itself. Each family has its own traditions, religion, and customs around saying goodbye to the dead. It’s important to find your own comfort level and to talk to your loved ones about your wishes. 

For many mourners, the act of throwing dirt on the grave carries a lot of meaning. Rooted in ancient tradition and religious beliefs, this is a powerful symbol of remembrance and saying goodbye. Finding closure after a loss is never easy. Any steps that help you take a step on the path of healing are worth celebrating. 


Sources:
  1. Diamant, Anita. “Filling the Grave.” My Jewish Learning, myjewishlearning.com/article/filling-the-grave.
  2. “Genesis 3:19.” Bible Study: Genesis 3, biblestudytools.com/genesis/3-19.html.
  3. Stevenson, Alice. “Predynastic Rituals.” Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org/uc/item/2m3463b2.

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