It was a sunny morning when the young widow and I sat in the office of the funeral home director. Her husband of only a few years had died suddenly, and she asked me to help her make difficult decisions. Amid all the questions, of one thing she was sure. Her husband’s grave must face east.
History reveals that Christians embraced the tradition of burying their dead facing east because Scripture teaches that the Messiah will return in the eastern sky (Isaiah 63:1; Zechariah 14:4). As the young widow said, “I want my husband to be among the first to see Jesus return. It is our Hope!” That’s a powerful funeral sermon.
But having a reverence for facing east is not just a Christian concept. While studying the archaeology surrounding the ancient Aztecs of Mexico, I discovered that they had various cultural traditions that required facing east. Aztec legends spoke of their primary god Quetzalcoatl, who had left them centuries earlier. But before he left, he had promised to return from the east to reclaim his throne. In 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived from the east, and the Aztecs were sure that he was their hoped-for god.
The ancient Egyptians built the great sphinx facing east as part of their religious worship. Indeed, many early cultures had similar practices primarily because they worshipped the sun. The sun woke them up, gave light and warmth, and caused their crops to grow. So, facing east had great meaning to them. This was also true for many of the native Americans of the United States.
Recently, a team of U.S. Army archaeologists unearthed a one-thousand-year old Native American burial site in Camp Evans, New Jersey. As was expected, all of the remains were buried facing east. Additionally, the Sioux of the Great Plains always pitched their tipis in a circle with the main entrance on the east side. Each tipi in the circle also faced east so they could capture benefits of the morning sun and favor of their sun god.
Did you know that in the Old Testament, God required that the temporary Tabernacle of the Children of Israel should face east? (Numbers 3:38). Later, when the permanent Temple was built, God again required that it face east (2 Chronicles 5:11-12). Facing east has nothing to do with salvation. It was a prophetic statement that the Messiah was going to be revealed in the eastern skies (Ezekiel 43:1-7)! As Jesus taught, "For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man." (Matthew 24:27 RSV).
There is no Biblical mandate for Christians to be buried facing east. In fact, God is bigger than our traditions, customs, and rituals. Finding peace with God will never come “through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men” (Colossians 2:8). Jesus said that those who think they can find Salvation through their customs are “making the Word of God of none effect through your traditions.” (Mark 7:13).
Being buried facing east will not save you. Salvation is in Christ alone, and in His redemptive work at Calvary. It comes down to confession, repentance, and accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior (John 3:16). Consider that as you watch the next sunrise.