Field Guide

Facing West


Grave Layout

A seventeenth and eighteenth century gravesite in New England generally consists of a headstone that faces west and a footstone that faces east. In between the stones is a mound of earth covering the body. The bodies are laid out between the two stones with their head to the west and the feet to the east.

Graves were laid out in this fashion because they believed the dead would rise at dawn on Judgment Day, face the sunrise, and ascend into heaven. The headstones inscription is on the side facing west, opposite the body so the visitors of the grave would not walk on the deceased, whom many thought is disrespectful. The first headstone and footstones are quite similar in shape to the head and foot boards of a bed. In fact the word 'cemetery' is translated from the Latin word 'coemeterium', meaning "sleeping place" or "sleeping chamber".

Taken from Our History In Stone: The New England Cemetery Dictionary by Christina Eriquez, published by Sinematix, Brookfield, CT, 2009. GREAT BOOK!

Orientation

Historically, Christian burials were made supine east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave. This mirrors the layout of Christian churches, and for much the same reason; to view the coming of Christ on Judgment day (Eschaton). In many Christian traditions, ordained clergy are traditionally buried in the opposite orientation, and their coffins carried likewise, so that at the General Resurrection they may rise facing, and ready to minister to, their people.

In Islam, the grave should be aligned perpendicular to the Qibla (i.e. Mecca) and the face turned to the right and facing Qibla.

Source: Wikipedia

Are Bodies Buried in a Specific Direction?

Rabbi Moshe Sofer says that, while Jewish law does not require all graves to face any particular direction, in anticipation of the ultimate redemption and the messianic era, when all will be resurrected, there was a custom that evolved in many communities.

1. In many cemeteries, the bodies are buried with their feet facing the entrance to the cemetery to symbolize that they will leave the cemetery at the time of the resurrection of the dead.

2. At the time of the resurrection, everyone will head to the Land of Israel, and therefore some cemeteries are set up so that the feet of the dead face the direction that one would take to travel to Israel. For instance, in cemeteries in Europe, the dead were buried with their feet to the east, and in others with their feet to the south. Because Israel is southeast of Eastern Europe, one would travel either east to Turkey and then south, or first south to the Mediterranean and then east.

Based on the above, some cemeteries in Europe had entrances on both the south and east sides and buried their dead in either direction.

Source: Chabad.org