In Israel, for a traditional funeral, no casket is used at all. However, when it is required, simplicity is a casket's most important quality in Judaism. This ideal is embodied in three characteristics: caskets should be made of only natural materials, lack adornment and be able to contact the earth.
Traditionally, caskets are made of wood with no metal parts. In Judaism, there is the expectation that the body of a deceased person will return to the earth. Genesis 3:19 says "from dust you come and to dust you will return." When a wooden casket is used, everything decomposes at approximately the same time, allowing the deceased's body to return to the earth. The interior of the casket should also be plain, not lined or filled with pillows or other materials.
Caskets for Jewish funerals may include a Star of David, more commonly known as a Jewish star, but otherwise they are not ornamented in any other way. Jewish tradition emphasizes the equality of all people at the time of their death, so the coffin should reflect that belief. As the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism remarks, "an ornate all-wood casket, although ritually acceptable, is not in the spirit of the law."
What is Interred
Jewish law states that nothing should be interred in the casket other than the body of the deceased, and sometimes earth from the land of Israel. The prohibition against placing any material goods with the deceased stems from the belief that everyone comes into the world empty-handed, and should leave the world in the same manner. The hands of the deceased are even opened in the coffin to emphasize that no one can carry anything material into the next world.
Touching the Earth
Jewish tradition is to bury the dead in contact with the earth. In the United States, however, many states require the use of caskets. Holes are often drilled into the bottom of the casket to facilitate decomposition and enhance the body's ability to return to the earth. At the funeral, the idea that the deceased's body will return to nature is reinforced by members of the family shoveling earth onto the coffin.
- Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images