Asked in Graveyards and Cemeteries
Why are graves always facing east in cemeteries?
September 13, 2011 10:13PM
Now just a few random bits of info and thoughts.
Before we look at the subject in any detail it is probably sensible to clarify what we mean! The question is normally a reaction by thoughtful people following a visit to a graveyard or cemetery where all the headstones are positioned at the end of the grave furthest west, with details and thoughts inscribed on the inside face which faces in a general rather than exact easterly. That said it can also relate to position the departed person was laid to rest in which we can also look at.
In a survey carried out throughout Europe and North America during 2006 93% of all burial related graves face east (as defined above) to within a variance of 10°, this figure is reduced to 79% when cremation related memorials are factored in however as many of these are non directional the reduction is not as significant as the numbers suggest . Clearly to look at these figures from another direction there are more graves facing east than those not facing east all added together!
As with many modern 'religious' traditions this seems to be a combination of following the teachings of wise persons mixed with the acceptance of previously followed spiritually based ways. These can be traced back as far as basic sun based religions and cultures where the sun is very significant and seen as the caretaker of the lifecycle. Egyptian religion and culture is perhaps the most documented solar based but is far from the first which can be traced back a further 3,700 years to cave paintings and structures from the stone age. Early Egyptian graves even resemble the stone age burials, with more preparation of the body, most are head north with the entire body on the left side or at least the face turned east. Later a simple rectangular coffin was used with the head north, on the left hand side of the coffin a pair of stylized eyes, these "wedjat" eyes were painted facing east so the spirit inside the box could see the rising sun. Even later as the whole burial process became more elaborate, with multiple sarcophagi and mummification, the facing east of the actual body was replaced with various ritualistic symbols. The covers of the sarcophagi, regardless of the orientation of the corpse's head, had paintings of the goddess of birth and/or re-birth facing left or east. By then Egyptian art had become so ritualistic and stylised that left nearly always symbolised East. Inner lids would have paintings of the goddess who assisted in the passage to the Land of the Dead facing right or west. Sometimes there would be a painting on the inside of the lids which faced west but as it would be flipped over to take up its final destination these also really face east!. By the time of the pyramids and later more elaborate tombs, in addition to the goddess paintings and other symbolic images, the deceased were represented by statues that were oriented to face east. Meso- American culture approaches the Egyptian solar-centricity and to a lesser extent the burial ritual complexity, and here we also find the east facing burials.
Many of the Solar Theology rituals were adapted by the newer religions that replaced them (For example Christianity reallocated the druid Winter Solstice Festival to form the celebration of Christmas, and in much the same way Spring Equinox became Easter. These reallocations allowed for less disruptive transitions from old practices in light of the new theologies without reducing in any way the significant importance to either group of followers (maybe we should reflect on this today?)
Many followers of Christianity state that graves face east because that's where Jesus will return from. The Bible makes no direct mention of the direction which Christ is expected to arrive from but does contain the following verses;
"Then the man brought me to the eastward facing gate, and I saw the Glory of God of coming." Ezek 43:1
"But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall." Mal 4:2
"...because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death..." Luke 1:78,79
New graveyards may have originally been laid out with east facing graves because that's just the way it is done or because somebody thinks there is a real or symbolic reason, but as it fills up graves are dug wherever they will fit. Others may be purposely planned with a different orientation because that's how the most graves will fit. Others might not be planned at all, new graves just go where there is space for them.
While flying for Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville for 5 years, I often showed this to the various nurses that flew with me along with familiarizing them with a few of the verses from the Bible that pertained to our Savior returning from the east, like the rising sun. I have been noticing this phenomenon literally all over the US, for nearly 20 years now in the older cemeteries up until the turn of the century.
There were several comments above about how graves face random directions just as often as they face east. Another person commented on how he worked at a cemetery (or something similar) and that graves are laid out in plots not relevant to east.
I would radically agree and yet disagree. You can take an arial photo of nearly every single cemetery in the larger cities in the US, (I have examples of Birmingham, Dallas, Nashville, Denver, etc.) and you will clearly see that the pre turn of the century grave sections (over 100 years old) all clearly face east, and then all of the ones after 1900 (roughly speaking) then begin to face in random directions. If you walk into the newer sections of cemeteries in nearly all of the major cities, all the new sections are random as relevant to maximizing occupancy (and no vision for the things discussed), but when you step into the old sections, you will clearly see that the graves face east.
I have found this general principle to apply to most of the cemeteries I have visited in South America, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand, and others.
Not only so, but I have collected hundreds of photographs of graves from the pre 1900's and their epitaths that support this view. In other words, modern epitaths have nice quotes about how good the person was, how they are in heaven, and how much we will miss them. Older epitaths quite often read RIP (Rest in peace), and express their hope in a future day when their Savior will return to earth (like the rising sun) and will raise the dead to life.
What we are witnessing with this grave orientation phenomenon is a shift in theology from the pre 1900's vs post 1900's. Before 1900, it was very common (as a Christian) to believe that the dead slept in death until the "last day", and as such they waited intently on a future Redeeemer (see Job 19:25/Job14:12/Psalm 49:15/John 6:39,40,44,54/Acts 23:6,24:15,21,26:6... and countless others).
After roughly 1900 though, we have adopted a more "palatable" (sp?) form of Christianity where we now assure everyone in our churches that they will immediately go to heaven when they die (not having to sleep in death). As such, "modern believers" have no interest in the resurrection of the dead or even a future glorious Savior returning to raise them from the dead for now they believe they will not have to sleep in death. (for more examples of sleeping in death see Isaiah 57:1-2, John 11:11-14,21-26,1 Cor 15:6,20, and more. Our modern cemeteries reflect the shift in our modern theology and this can be easily documented comparing past doctrine and past epitaths to modern doctrine and modern epitaths.
For those who claim that graves are merely random, it is probably because their exposure is limited to primarily newer cemeteries and their newer sections.
I have been studying this subject and many others that relate to it for over 13 years, including the Egyptians and their belief in a future Sun God that would raise the dead, and various other cultures. I have written a large manuscript on the subject that illustrates how this future hope in the resurrection of the dead was the hope of the Bible. I am not trying to sell this book and it is not even in print yet (hopefully within the year). But the website is www.thekingofglory.com if anyone is interested in about a year. The book is titled "You Must be Born Again" and is all about the resurrection of the dead and the future hope of a Savior who will return from the East "like the rising sun" to raise the dead to life. It contains infinately more information on this subject than can be placed in this short message box.
It is because of this simple concept that our Lord Jesus himself refers to himself as "the bright and morning star" Rev 22:16, or in other words, "the rising sun" Mal 4:2 & Luke 1:78,79. For those who are not sure.... the big "bright morning star" called "the sun" rises in the east.....
"But for you who revere my Name, the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings." Mal 4:2
What is the origin of the practice of all headstones facing east?
In many, but by no means all, early New England burying grounds the graves are positioned east/west. This east/west orientation is the most common orientation in other parts of the country and world as well. The earliest settlers had their feet pointing toward the east and the head of the coffin toward the west, ready to rise up and face the "new day" (the sun) when "the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised" or when Christ would appear and they would be reborn. If the body was positioned between the headstone and the footstone, with the inscriptions facing outward, the footstone might actually be facing east and the decorated face of the headstone facing west. If the headstone inscription faces east, the body would most commonly be buried to the east of it. Much depends on the layout of the graveyard -- if there was a church or other building in the center of the burial site, where the high ground was located, the location of access roads, etc. Early graves were seldom in the neat rows that we are used to seeing. Burials were more haphazard, more medieval in their irregularity; families didn't own plots and burial spaces were often reused. The north side of the cemetery was considered less desirable and is often the last part of the burying ground to be used, or you may find the north side set aside for slaves, servants, suicides, "unknowns," etc. In many burial grounds graves face all four points on the compass. Sometimes a hilly site will have stones facing all four directions. With the coming of the Rural Cemetery Movement in the 1830s and 40s, an entirely new style of burial became popular. The ideal of winding roads and irregular terrain dictated the orientation of the monuments to a large degree."
I did not write this answer, I pasted it from a website I found. I think it answers your question very well!
in the USA most private & public cemetery's the graves face east at least in any Christian based cemetery, I was raised that it was because of the teaching from the bible of Jesus coming from the east to take us home and its what the bible teaches.
(even if they are stood on end they still face east)
Its the way our local cemetery is layed out and the Muslim cemetery next door they are facing Mecca which is North & South.