If you have ever attended a burial in the United States, Canada, or Europe, you may have seen a specific death ritual in action- throwing a handful of dirt on the coffin, especially as it is lowered into the ground. This is also a familiar scene in movies as it is very symbolic and steeped in certain religions and cultures. You may have noticed that the spouse or other close family member is often the first to toss a handful of dirt on the casket, and then other family members, then friends proceed with the same custom. As a death ritual, it provides a way for loved ones to directly participate in the burial.
For many religions, this act symbolizes that a person was born of this earth and has returned to this earth/nature. Many cultures around the world see death as a natural part of life. Returning to nature is just one component of the circle of life.
Secondly, by throwing dirt on the coffin it is an opportunity for closure, or a way to say goodbye formally and visually. As a death doula, I see the importance of this as one step in the grieving process.
Thirdly, it can be seen to show your respect to the family, even if this custom is not of your own culture or belief system.
Finally, it is a great way of showing solidarity during times of mourning. Engaging in a common ritual such as this allows people to come together and lean on each other.
A variation of this custom, and one practiced by certain cultures, is throwing flowers or petals on the coffin. A New Zealand reality television series, beginning in 2018, called The Casketeers, would often depict such a scene.
The roots of this death ritual extend back through time. As mentioned before, throwing soil on the coffin also symbolizes that the deceased has gone to their final resting place – the earth. It is widely believed that this ritual is inspired by the early Egyptian’s practice of placing sand on the body of the deceased before they were buried. (See source 1).
Other sources point out how for Ancient Egyptians this was a sign of respect. “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.” (Source 2)
Continuing now with the religious aspects of this death ritual, it is important to note, especially if attending a service that differs from your own religion, that some religions are more likely partake in this death ritual than others. This practice is commonly seen in Jewish and some Christian funerals, but can also be found in other religious ceremonies, so it is best to check with the clergy or a family member in advance.
“During a Christian burial, while dirt is being thrown on the coffin, the priest or whoever is officiating the funeral service often says the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” This means that at death, the soul is released from the body, leaving the body to turn to dust.” (Source 1)
In 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. Today, some families follow this Jewish tradition and pour three scoops of sand into the grave as a callback to this earlier custom. “According to Rabbi Robert Eisen, this tradition represents both acceptance and resistance to death…The act of throwing dirt on a grave is an important and powerful way for the deceased’s family to honor their loved one and move closer to the truth….The deceased’s return to where he came from, as the expression implies, is symbolic – man is born on the earth and must return to it as well.” (Source 3)
In conclusion, throwing dirt, sand, flowers, or petals on a coffin is just one death ritual that might be customary to your culture or religious beliefs to honour someone who died. In the end, follow your heart, and do what brings you comfort during your grieving process.
Source 1: https://ezifunerals.com.au/ FUNERAL TRADITIONS: Throwing Dirt on the Coffin
Source 2: https://dying.lovetoknow.comDeath Rituals & Traditions Around the Globe, Learning from other cultures can help you honor your loved ones., by Julie Kirk, January 6, 2023
Source 3: https://www.funeraldirect.co the-ancient-ritual-of-throwing-soil-on-the-coffin-exploring-origins-and-significanceFebruary 4, 2023
Other sources consulted as part of the creation of this blog:
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.
4. https://www.joincake.com/Why Do People Throw Dirt On Caskets During a Burial?, by Sam Tetrault, 2/15/2023