NOT USING THE CHEVRA KADISHA
The congregation has a Chevra Kadisha which provides a minyan and a meal of consolation, etc., to the families of the bereaved. They perform this service both for members and non-members of the congregation. Some citizens, members or non-members, wish the funeral to be so private that they do not have the Chevra Kadisha participate. Have the people the right to do so? May the rabbi officiate at such funerals? (Asked by Rabbi Albert A. Michels, Sun City, Arizona.)
IT MUST BE understood at the outset that the status of the Chevra Kadisha is different in the United States from what it was in the Old World. There the congregation or the various congregations were part of a united community, and the Chevra Kadisha was a communal organization. Therefore all members of the community had the right to the services of the Chevra, and the Chevra had the right to deal with all deaths. But even so, a person was not necessarily bound to turn the body over to the Chevra, as can be seen from the fact that many a time a body was buried in another city and the local Chevra had little to do with it except, perhaps, to aid in the transportation.
Here in America the Jews do not have one community, but belong to separate congregations. Therefore, as far as non-members of the congregation are concerned, there can be no mutual obligation between them and the Chevra of a congregation to which they do not belong. As for members of the congregation, it may well be considered that when they joined the congregation, the implication was that they accepted the congregational constitution, which involves use of the Chevra Kadisha.
But even so, members of the congregation have rights with regard to the funeral arrangements, and, in fact, the deceased also has rights (as our father Jacob had the right to say where he would be buried). That right is clearly stated by Isserles in Yore Deah 362:2. Or a man may have the right to say he wants no eulogy. But no one, whether the deceased himself or his family, has the right to request anything that is contrary to Jewish law. For example, if a person left the request or the family makes the request that the body not be buried (as in the case of the modern plans of cryobiology), such requests, being contrary to Jewish law, are not to be heeded (Yore Deah 348:3).
Therefore the question comes down to whether what your Chevra Kadisha provides is required by Jewish law or is merely a custom. For example, is the minyan really required? True, of course, the mourner must stay at home for a week, although why is it not enough if he prays privately at home? Must there be a minyan? Isserles (Yore Deah 384:3) says it is a mitzvah to have these services at the home, but Joseph Caro does not mention it as a requirement. But we may count the minyan, therefore, as an established custom, at least among the Ashkenazim. As for bringing food to the bereaved, it is true that they may not eat their own food for the first meal; so that, too, may be counted as an established custom.
Therefore we may conclude that in America, where the Chevra is not communal but congregational, non-members are certainly not required to have its services. As for members, they have a stronger requirement to use the Chevra, but they, too, need not be mandated to observe whatever is not strictly a mitzvah.
As for the rabbi, it is his duty to officiate for all Jewish people, and he certainly cannot refuse. Even a Kohen must defile himself for a mayss mitzvah, and burying the dead has become, in America, a mitzvah incumbent upon the rabbi, especially if the family requests his service.