Tombstones in traditional Western cemeteries usually face east. According to Northumberland County Council, the tradition began when Pagans buried the dead so they would face the rising sun. The tradition continued in Judeo-Christian societies. While Jews and Christians were not the first to bury the dead facing east, the layout of these cemeteries today stems directly from biblical history and societal tradition. Although modern cemeteries may have graves facing other directions, east-facing tombstones are still found in many traditional Christian and Jewish cemeteries.
Beliefs Regarding Burial
Today's cemeteries composed of east-facing tombstones arise from Judeo-Christian beliefs. According to "Ethnicity and the American Cemetery," the feet of the deceased face east as well. This tradition is based on the belief that when Jesus returns, the departed will rise from the grave already facing his direction. Traditionally, facing east was not exclusively for the dead, but for the living as well. Christian churches were built with their entrances facing west so that worshippers faced east during the services as they looked toward the altar.
References of east and west occur throughout the Bible. In “The Bible Significance of East and West; or, Is The Dawn Appearing,” Robert Christy Totten lists seven sacred places in the Bible, beginning with the Garden of Eden from Genesis and ending with the New Jerusalem in Revelations. Totten shows that in the Bible, people entered these places always from east, facing west. Conversely, when leaving they exited from the west, toward the east.
In biblical scripture, Jesus spoke to his disciples about his second coming in detail. In Mathew 24:27, he told them “For as the lightning flashes from the East and is seen even in the West, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Although Christians are traditionally buried facing east, clergy members are generally buried facing west. The belief behind this is that when the dead are risen, clergy will rise facing their congregations, ready to lead their people once again.
Modern Day Burial
Some newer cemeteries have broken away from tradition for practical reasons, such as easier layout. With more immigrants in Western countries, adaptations are often made to be nonsecular and accepting of all religious and spiritual beliefs. Although not all modern cemeteries follow such traditions, east-facing cemeteries still exist and arouse the curiosity of people today.