The Jews of the early Roman empire practiced a burial custom called ossilegium, which was a two-part process. In primary burial, the deceased’s body was placed in a niche or on a bench in a tomb. Secondary burial occurred one year later after the soft tissue had decomposed. Family members collected the bones and placed them in an ossuary, which is a receptacle for holding the bones of the dead. The ossuary was then permanently placed in a niche in the family tomb. Ossuaries were not coffins, and a single ossuary could be used for the bones of more than one individual.
The Jews of Jerusalem practiced ossilegium from 30 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., and the custom continued outside Jerusalem until the mid-third century C.E. Ossilegium was an important family event and a religious act. The Jews believed in life after death and resurrection. The decomposition of the flesh thus purified the deceased’s soul, a necessity for resurrection. Ossuary decoration, which was influenced by rock-cut tombs, symbolized the soul’s immortality and life everlasting. The most common designs included two rosettes flanking a central motif, and often a lily (a resurrection symbol), but other plants and zigzag borders are known. Ossuaries were usually fashioned of limestone, and some were painted red or yellow and had inscriptions naming the deceased.