For Jews, choosing a casket for a deceased loved one is a straightforward task because Jewish law requires it to be simple and unadorned. Jewish after-death proceedings are meant to honor the body and prepare the deceased for the afterlife, and choosing a simple casket supports the body's natural return to the earth.
Theology and Belief Behind Burial Customs
The ancient Jewish custom of burying an enshrouded body without any casket, which is still practiced in Israel today, reflects Genesis 3:19: "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." Returning the body to the earth completes the life cycle. However, a casket is mandatory in many western countries, where Jews retain the spirit of the original tradition by making the burial as natural as possible. Also, Jews believe that the soul is not at rest until the body is properly interred, so a sense of urgency drives the planning of every Jewish funeral. The body must be buried in the ground before nightfall of the same day, if possible, or the next day.
Exterior Coffin and Cemetery Specifications
The coffin, or "aron" in Yiddish, must be a simple box made of wood or another organic material. Traditional Jewish law, "halacha," states that there should be no nails or hinges; rather, the box should be entirely wooden. It is forbidden to cremate or entomb the deceased in a mausoleum; the coffin must be buried in the ground at a cemetery. Also, unless the cemetery requires a solid concrete grave liner, Jewish families request perforated or partial liners, with only a bottom and no top to allow the coffin to make contact with the earth.
Interior Adornment and Presentation of the Casket
The interior of the coffin should also be plain, without lining or accoutrements, and sometimes soil from Israel or sacred texts are placed inside. An open casket during the funeral is forbidden because it is seen as disrespectful to the body or "met," which is also not to be enhanced with cosmetics. Also, because flowers are meant for joyous occasions, they do not belong on the casket.
A Recent Trend Supports an Ancient Tradition
A growing number of cemeteries are making special arrangements for natural burial without a coffin, accessible to people of any religious denomination and allowing for the ancient Jewish tradition to be practiced. For example, River View cemetery in Portland, Ore., which describes natural burials as an environmentally friendly alternative, permits them almost anywhere on its grounds. A specially designed biodegradable board is used to lower the body into the grave.
- Chabad.org: The Taharah
- Chabad.org: A Jewish Funeral is a Jew's Right
- Dictionary of Jewish Usage: A Guide to the Use of Jewish Terms; Sol Steinmetz
- Reclaiming Judaism: Do Jewish Burials Require a Coffin?
- The Jewish Federations of North America: Jewish Funeral Customs: Saying Goodbye to a Loved One
- River View Cemetery: Natural Burial
- Jewish Virtual Library: Preparation for Burial
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