What Does It Mean When Dirt Is Thrown Onto A Coffin?

Whether in person or in the media, most people have performed or observed the funeral custom of throwing a handful of dirt onto a casket. It takes place after the casket's final descent into the ground. The closest family member is usually the first to begin the ritual, either a spouse or blood relative, and then all the other family members and friends follow suit. Often associated with religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism, the ritual is purported to have a long history, and in modern times it offers benefits both religious and secular (via National Memorial Planning).

As it is with many death rituals, from wearing black to attending a wake, the ritual of throwing dirt on the coffin provides a sense of solidarity as family and friends say goodbye to a loved one. Outward displays of grief such as crying, wailing, or tearing a piece of clothing — as it is in Judaism — help mourners process their loss, while other customs surrounding death, including the throwing of the dirt, bring them closer to a sense of closure, per Love to Know.

History and burial customs

Some have traced the ritual of throwing dirt on the coffin back to ancient Egypt, where family members of the deceased were said to have thrown sand onto the body (via Celebrant Essex). It has also held a great deal of importance in Judaism and other Abrahamic religions where the burial of the dead is preferred over cremation — or other forms of laying the dead to rest (i.e., the Tibetan sky burials where the body is eaten by predators), per Love to Know.

According to Classroom, it is against Jewish law to cremate the dead. The body must instead go through the natural process of decomposition. For the Abrahamic religions, burial returns the human body to the Earth from which it came, similar to Pagan traditions that view man as being sustained by nature and ultimately returned to it once he is laid to rest. In this way, burial offers families a sense of comfort and acceptance of the finality of death.

The meaning of throwing dirt on the coffin

There is variation in the custom from one religious tradition to the next. For Jewish funerals, or "levayah" (Hebrew for "escorting"), a shovel may be used to toss dirt onto the casket. It signifies the dead's departure from the world of the living and can also express grief. At festivals, the shovel can be turned in reverse while shoveling to express the intensity of the mourner's despair. Much like it is with Christianity, the concept of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" comes into play when the body is lowered to the Earth, per Classroom.

When the soul is released, the body is left to turn to "dust" as the recitation implies, and throwing dirt helps with the officiation of this process, per National Memorial Planning. Although the ritual is ubiquitous, not everyone is comfortable with it, and children or adults who find it too painful may toss flowers onto the casket instead (via My Jewish Learning).