What Is the Symbolism of Throwing Dirt on a Coffin?

by Catherine Irving

Throwing dirt on a grave is a somber experience symbolizing a variety of cultural and religious meanings. Mourners often use the custom to lean on each other for support and to fully commit themselves to the funeral service. Funeral homes, rabbis, ministers, and officiants help guide the participants through prayer before the final moments of throwing the dirt.

Jewish Customs

Orthodox Jewish funeral in Jerusalem, Israel

Many Jewish communities gather to throw three or 13 spadefuls of dirt during a burial. The idea relates to the three soul levels called nefesh, ruach and neshamah. The use of 13 spadefuls relates to the passage in Psalm 78:38 that are recited during a burial. Customs vary from community to community, and throwing the dirt can symbolize different aspects of Jewish religion.

Communal Grief

Jewish mourners can gather to make burial a communal process to ease their grief and gather support. Some Jewish customs encourage the grieving to use the back of the shovel as a sign of despair and reluctance. The dirt may be thrown after the rabbi recites a prayer and motions for the first mourner to take the shovel.

Egyptian Influence

Christian culture also throws handfuls of dirt on a coffin. Often you will hear the phrase "from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust" as the dirt is being thrown. These words come from an Egyptian custom in which family of the deceased throws sand on the body before it is buried.

Return to Earth

Dirt being shoveled onto coffins in China

Throwing dirt on a coffin can symbolize the deceased returning to the earth as a final resting place. Many cultures and religions believe that man was born of the earth and returns when he dies. Often a family member or spouse will throw the first handful of dirt, with other family and friends following suit.


People shovel dirt at funeral

Throwing dirt on a coffin at a funeral can have non-religious connotations. Some mourners are looking for a way to connect to the experience, offer a gesture of respect to the deceased and his family, and share grief with others. They might sign a guest book, tell stories about the deceased, leave flowers, or throw dirt at the burial site.


Relatives shovel dirt at funeral in Israel

Many mourners throw dirt on a grave to symbolize the finality of the moment. They have paid their last respects and are participating in the end of the ceremony. The grave is sprinkled with dirt, and the rest of the grave will be filled in later. Afterward, mourners attend a reception or service, sometimes at a home of a friend or family member of the deceased.

About the Author

Catherine Irving is a travel and lifestyle writer living in Brooklyn, New York and has been professionally freelance writing since 2002. She's written for "Young Money," Kayak.com, Pokemon.com and numerous other national outlets. Irving graduated with a bachelor's degree in film with a minor in English from Georgia State University.

Photo Credits

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