I have often been asked why the graves at our cemetery were not facing east, and although I was aware of this tradition, I was unable to give those asking a direct answer. Looking around the cemetery and at the section maps, has always led me to believe that the eastern burial orientation was simply never part of the master plan.
For those of you wondering what it is I am referring to, the Christian religions have a tradition of burying their dead facing the east. It is worth noting that eastward facing burial has been traced back to some of the earliest solar based religions as well.
The tradition has been that the body is buried in such a way that the feet are oriented to the east and the head being oriented to the west. Alternatively, if it was not possible to bury someone in this orientation, the body may have been buried in a north south orientation with the head turned in such a way to face east. This tradition is still very evident today, either by conscious choice of knowledgeable cemetery managers and cemetery planners or it is because burials taking place today are buried in lots that were laid out many years ago. The practice of burying the dead facing the east does appear to be waning in more modern operations, replaced instead with layouts that are open, inviting and more cooperative with pedestrian access or a landscape plan rather than a specific direction.
As mentioned earlier, it is believed that some of the earliest solar based religions buried their dead facing east in order to face the “rising sun” and “the new day”. The Christian tradition of eastward facing burials also refers to Christ being the “Light of the World” and the sun being the physical light, but it is more firmly rooted in biblical text and the belief that Christ will come from the east at the time of the resurrection, thus the dead would rise up to face him. There are several scriptural references to this. Matthew 24:27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man, and Ezekiel 43:1-2 Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory.
On this same note, many churches would also orient their altars facing east for the very same reasons. So next time you’re in a church, pull out your compass and check it out. (Since you are probably in a church early in the morning or late in the afternoon, maybe just check the position of the sun and leave the compass at home, you probably don’t want to be “that” person.)
Another interesting tradition is the position you are buried as it relates to your spouse What we refer to as “proper” burial would reflect the burial of the husband on the left and the wife on the right, as you would be looking at their graves while standing at their feet. This positioning would be the same as how you stand in marriage when facing the altar in a church. This practice is still very common today, at least in the cemeteries in my area. You could say this positioning is the “default” position sans any standing instructions.
So next time you find yourself visiting a cemetery, take note of what portion of the burials in that cemetery appear to be facing the east, and how many headstones have the husbands name on the left as you are looking at it.