The opening story of Parashat Chayei Sarah details the death of Sarah and the subsequent purchase of the field which contains Me’arat HaMachpeilah from Efron HaChiti. The most common question about this topic is why Avraham felt the need to buy the land from Efron when he was offered it for free. The classic answer given is so all future generations would see that this land was purchased at no great bargain with a clear title, by Avraham, in order to bury his wife Sarah. But this initial analysis raises a further question: how did Avraham know that he was required to bury Sarah?
One answer is that these laws of burial are outlined in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 46b). Ironically, these laws that apply to Sarah's burial are derived from Pesukim concerning a burying a criminal. The source in the Chumash is found in Sefer Devarim (21:22-23): “VeChi Yihyeh BeIsh Cheit Mishpat Mavet VeHumat . . . Kavor Tikberenu BaYom HaHu,” “If a man should commit a crime and be guilty of the death penalty . . . you shall surely bury him on that same day.” From this we learn that if a criminal deserving of death is worthy to be buried (immediately), then certainly a righteous, or even an ordinary Jew should be buried.
This first answer assumes that Avraham knew of this Gemara (which is an interesting topic itself), or at least this Halachah concerning burial. But even if Avraham didn’t know this Halachah, there is another answer as to how Avraham knew to bury Sarah. Probing further into how Avraham knew to bury his wife, one can look at the first recorded death in the Torah: the death of Hevel. The Pesukim themselves do not make any mention of a burial’s taking place; however, the Midrash Tanchuma does record a story which includes the first burial. When Kayin killed Hevel, the body was lying on the ground, and Kayin did not know what to do with it. Then, Hashem sent two birds to Kayin, and when one bird died, the other bird buried its deceased friend, thereby teaching Kayin to bury Hevel. The Midrash goes further to say that it is in this Zechut—the merit of teaching something so vital for all generations to come—birds merited the reward of “Kisuy HaDam,” having their blood covered upon their Shechitah.
However, it is very likely that Avraham would have logically concluded that burying a dead body was the proper way of respecting the dead even without knowing what the Gemara and Midrash explain. In last week’s Parashah, Avraham says to Hashem, “VeAnochi Afar VaEifer,” “I am but dust and ashes” (BeReishit 18:27). How did Avraham draw that conclusion about himself? Especially, in light of the fact that the first mention of “man” in the Torah is “BeTzelem Elokim” (1:27), and many other sources make reference to man in God’s image, where do we see dust?
Back in Parashat BeReishit, God says to Adam, “Ki Afar Atah VeEl Afar Tashuv,” “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). In Sefer Devarim, immediately following the laws of burial (Mitzvah 537, according to Sefer HaChinuch) is Mitzvah 538—the law of Hashavat Aveidah, returning a lost object. Avraham on his own made the same connection that the Torah did; he understood that burying Sara was truly Hashavat Aveidah; burying Sarah was really bringing her back to Hashem, to her final resting and starting place.
This is very consistent with Avraham’s general profile. Avraham was logically able to figure out the truth of monotheism – the universe could not just exist on its own, and it did not make sense that idols were its creators. Similarly, Avraham was able to deduce that the action taken regarding a dead body is a simple and common act of ethics and morality: returning an object to its rightful owner. Avraham was also able to figure out that burying the dead was the most respectful and proper action, because he himself was naturally a moral person; he was going to do an act which was a Chesed Shel Emet.
Now we understand why Avraham chose to bury his wife. This was an extremely emotional time for Avraham; it is the Torah’s first recorded death of a spouse. Avraham is portrayed as having done things that demonstrated his love for his wife: he cried for her, he eulogized her, but most importantly, he returned her to Hashem, to the earth, whence she came—and he buried her.