In our Western culture, the dead are customarily buried or cremated. It does not surprise us that Jesus’ body was buried. But it was surprising, giving the culture and customs of that time. The Romans did not usually allow crucified criminals to be buried. Crucifixion was meant to be horrific and shameful until the very end. Normally, they left the bodies on the cross as an invitation to carrion birds or threw them in a pile to be mauled by scavengers.
In Jesus’ case, the bodies were taken down in the evening because the Jewish Sabbath started at sundown. Moses’ Law prohibited bodies to remain hanging overnight (Deut. 21:23), and Pilate did not wish to offend the Jews on their holy day.
Joseph of Arimathea claimed the body and buried it. We don’t know who this Joseph was, nor where Arimathea might be located. Matthew says that he was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus. It must have taken some courage to approach Pilate and ask for the body. It could be dangerous to be known as a disciple or sympathizer of a convicted man! Of course, Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, and Joseph’s request gave him an easy way to get rid of the body.
After the shameful death on the cross, the Lord received an honourable, even luxurious burial. This reminds us of the riddle in Isaiah 53:9: And he made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death.
While we bury our dead in the soil, in Bible times the bodies were preferably placed in a cave-like grave. This explains why, for instance, Lazarus could walk out of his grave when Jesus raised him. (John 11:44) The grave Joseph provided for Jesus was specifically carved out of a rock for that purpose; only the rich could afford that! But Jesus’ grave was still underground, and he was indeed “in the heart of the earth” just as Jonah had been in the belly of the fish, as Jesus had prophesied. (Mat. 12:40)
To honour the dead and slow down decay, the bodies were typically washed and anointed with spices, then wrapped up tightly in cloth. Joseph did not have much time to do so, especially if he wished to keep the Sabbath; the “clean linen shroud” (Mat. 27:59) may well have been a temporary measure, a rush job. That explains why several female disciples came at the first daylight after the Sabbath, on Sunday morning, to give Jesus’ body more thorough care. Joseph and the women tried their best to honour their Lord. But their faith was incomplete; as they learned on Resurrection Sunday, Jesus’ burial was but temporary, and death was thoroughly defeated on that day.