CARR 151-152


Contemporary American Reform Responsa

91. Open Casket

QUESTION: What is the

attitude of Reform Judaism to an open casket prior to the funeral service? The casket is closed

during the service. Would this attitude change if the entire funeral were held at a chapel located

in the cemetery? (Rabbi R. Walter, Houston, TX)ANSWER: We have become

accustomed to closed caskets, and that has become a uniform practice throughout the country,

at least after the funeral service has begun. The coffin is always closed when funeral services

are held in the synagogue. In most cities, the casket also remains closed during the time before

the service. Visiting before the service has been discouraged. Some modern Orthodox rabbis

have objected very strongly to the open casket as an imitation of Gentile practices (J.

Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, p. 36 and W. Leiter, Bet David 198b). There are

also some earlier traditional objections, so the Talmud (M. K. 72a) stated that the faces of

the poor should be covered because they would display their poverty and the surviving relatives

would be put to shame, a reason also given by the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 353.1).

The Talmud (Hor. 13b) also stated that a man may forget all that he has learned if he

looks upon the face of the dead. Similarly, the Sefer Hassidim (Margolis, ed., p. 103)

prohibited kissing the dead. We must, of course, remember that most dead in ancient times were

simply buried in shrouds and not in a coffin. In fact, there is a considerable discussion among the

authorities whether closing a coffin is not the equivalent of burial, and therefore, may lead to the

beginning of official mourning. This discussion hinges on the interpretation of a phrase

yisasem hagolel (M. K. 27a; Shab. 152b). Rabbenu Tam insisted that this meant the

grave had to be covered, while Rashi thought it referred to the closing of the coffin. Various later

authorities have quoted one or the other in their opinions. It is clearly our custom to

have the coffin closed at the cemetery and generally at the funeral home in accordance with

tradition. We insist on it when services are conducted in the synagogue itself and at the

cemetery chapel. The coffin should be closed before and during the service.August 1979

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.